The other day, I went to the bookstore to pick up a copy of Don Quixote. It’s one of the big classics I’ve never gotten around to finishing and with an upcoming trip to Spain, it seemed like the perfect time to tackle it. But when I started flipping through the first pages, I was reminded of every time I’d started and failed to finish this book. Whether it’s the voice, character, or translation, I just can’t get into it. I slid it back onto the shelf, but this time I knew that I wouldn’t be back to try again another time. It was time to delete Cervantes from my To Be Read Eventually List. Instead, I headed over to the YA section of store to buy a book that would suck me in from the first page.
One of my favorite things about turning thirty was the sudden realization that I had so many fewer fucks to give about expectations, others’ opinions, and trying to be something I’m not. But somehow, that freedom hasn’t quite transferred to reading and writing yet. Though I fully believe that life is too short to read crappy books, it’s sometimes hard to extend that belief to books that the literary canon has deemed Good and Important but that don’t really speak to me. Literary snobbery is a powerful force and having degrees in English and literature make it extremely tempting to try and live up to the pretensions. It even sometimes extends to the stories I write.
For years, I had a writing partner I loved working with. He was smart, funny, and whether in person or on the page, he could spin a story that was absolutely compelling. And even though I’ve been writing basically my entire life, I looked up to him as a more experienced, and yes, better writer than I was. His writing had depth and meaning. He’d taken writing classes and was always ready with a critique. In true lit-bro fashion, he idolized Hemingway, wrote about war, and couldn’t write a fully-developed female character to save his life. Striving to keep up with him and my classmates in the writing classes I eventually took, I wrote short stories and novel drafts that were a far cry from the fluffy romances, fan fiction, and fantasy that had kept me up late into the night scribbling in composition notebooks for literally decades. I was going to be a real writer dammit, and that meant setting aside childish stories for “serious” literature.
It’s taken me years to crawl my way out from under this kind of thinking. Years of joyless unfinished drafts, harsh self-critiques, and stories written simply to complete an assignment. I didn’t take the hint when the only NaNo I won that didn’t include a deadline for my thesis was a story I called “Plot Bunny #1” and told myself was only for fun. I didn’t really get it when new ideas kept cropping up that were fluffy, silly fun with lots of kissing. In fact, it wasn’t until I re-read Pride and Prejudice for the thousandth time that it finally dawned on me: it’s totally legitimate to read and write books that just make you happy. A wild concept, I know. Of course, it’s great to stretch your reading muscles with stories outside your comfort zone, but it’s also important to pay attention to the books you reach for time and time again. For me, that’s anything in the Jane Austen vein of clever romantic comedies, inspiring and funny memoirs by interesting women, and Agatha Christie mysteries that wrap up in a stunningly smart bow. In short, whatever the dangers, whatever the obstacles, I want a story that ends happily. The same is true of the stories I get excited to write. And that in no way makes me any less of a “real” writer.