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What I learned about writing on my summer vacation

Walking on the rail-trail this morning, I’m thinking about vacation. I’m just back from two weeks on the Cape with family and friends. I didn’t write a word during those two weeks (not with my wonderful daughters, two delicious grandchildren, their sleep-deprived parents, gorgeous weather, lovely beaches, and so many games of Settlers of Catan to play). Even so, my manuscript-in-progress accompanied me everywhere.

Partly, that was because my daughters read the manuscript-so-far, about 200 pages of first draft (I told you they’re wonderful) and gave me thoughtful critiques and suggestions. Partly it was that characters have no respect for vacations or weekends or sleep. And partly, it was because of the books I read on vacation, and what they taught me.

I always haul a large size L.L. Bean bag filled with books to the cape. In the days before grandchildren, I’d read six or seven of them on vacation, and my daughters and friends would do the same. These days, I read more IVY AND BEAN and SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES and MERCY WATSON. But I did manage to read two adult books, and they’ve got me thinking about story-telling in general and what I love in particular.

The first book is Wally Lamb’s forthcoming novel, WE ARE WATER. I’ve loved Wally’s previous novels, and have been eagerly anticipating this one. It’s the portrait of a family, a marriage, of children scarred by early events and traumas. It’s also the story about people breaking free of historical grief and secrets and finding joy. Like so much of Lamb’s work, it explores race and class and violence, as well as the redemptive powers of creative work. As a reader, I loved all of this. As a writer, I was particularly interested in the structure of the book, in the masterful way that Lamb reveals details of story, and back-story, from multiple points of view, in a nonlinear manner, so that the reader plays a major part in putting together the puzzle pieces.

The second book is OFFSPRING, the second novel by Michael Quadland. This was a reread; I read this book when it was first published and selected this book for the August discussion at the Odyssey Bookshop in S. Hadley, MA, where I lead a monthly fiction book group. In fact, OFFSPRING is set in a bookstore, The Strand, in lower Manhattan, where the lives of a Vietnam vet, a transgendered person, and a volatile and unstable actress intersect wildly. The past traumas are different than in WE ARE WATER, but the longing of each character to find a way to fit into an unwelcoming world resonates similarly. With enormous empathy for their often-unsympathetic circumstances, both of these authors challenge our preconceptions and prejudices.

Reading good books enriches my writing life in so many ways. I can’t wait to get back to my manuscript tomorrow morning, filled with inspiration and energy, enthusiasm and new ideas.
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