Emily Gilman

Making Stuff Up and Writing It Down Since (Before) I Learned How to Write


Reading and Reflection

Today I finished Mohja Kahf’s beautiful, fascinating novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, about a Syrian-American girl and her changing relationships to her family, to her friends, to politics, to religion, and ultimately to herself. I’ve also (finally!) been reading Connie Willis’s time-travel-slash-historical-fiction novel Blackout, which is fascinating and engrossing (but also rather stressful!). And I’ve slowly been reading (a translation of) the Qur’an, one sura at a time, both for research and for my own curiosity. And I just started reading G.K. Chesterton’s essay Heretics, which (along with Orthodoxy) I’ve decided to read as part of my Lenten observance. And then of course there are the young adult books I’ve been reading for work . . .

The funny thing about reading again is that the more I read the more I itch to write. It’s like I was dehydrated from too little reading, and now I’ve finally caught up enough that reading is no longer enough, I need to be doing something with it. I need to be participating in that creative process. And it’s hard, because I love the story I’m working on right now, but it’s the kind of story that comes out as a sentence here, a paragraph there, slowly growing or perhaps slowly revealing itself to me. I’m not sure. (With luck, writing this entry will help tide me over until I have time and energy to sit down and work properly, maybe this weekend.)

I think, though, that I’m glad I’ve been reading so many different kinds of books — books for adults, books for children, fiction, nonfiction, holy, secular, all in different styles and with different emphasis (on plot, on character, on language . . . ). Because, you see, I am also slowly working my way through the draft of a friend’s novel, and every so often I feel that pang that always reminds me of the scene in Velvet Goldmine, when Brian Slade says of Curt Wild’s performance, “I wish it had been me. I wish I’d thought of it.”

The thing is, I don’t wish that, at least not in so specific a sense. I could wish that; I could sit here and be jealous and unhappy and let those bad feelings rot inside me. What I really wish in those moments, though, is that I’d done (or I were doing) something like whatever I’m reading or watching or hearing: I wish I were doing something meaningful, something beautiful, something creative. Reading lots of different things helps remind me of that distinction, because just as I can enjoy all of these different books I can appreciate that my friend wrote her novel and also be excited about my own writing projects and how we’re both doing such different and interesting things.

I suppose I’m also thinking about this a lot today because it’s Ash Wednesday, and after several long months of being tired and stressed-out and unhappy and never quite catching up I’m finally sorting out what I want to be doing and finding the energy to do it. I have no interest in giving things up, right now, but I welcome the extra motivation to focus on reflection and discipline, on making time for the important things in my life and in some cases discovering through that process what those important things are. Mostly so far I’m finding that making the time, investing the energy even when I’m tired, is what’s giving me the most joy and energy back.