Emily Gilman

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


In which I am about seventy pages from the end of Dune.

So I’m reading Dune. I’m nominally reading it for work, but I’m also reading it because I meant to have read it ages ago (if a certain former professor of mine is reading this, I’m sorry), and because I write fantasy more than science fiction but it’s still an important work in the field, etc.

Also, I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of friends who love Dune. They love it intensely. It is possible I have recently seen a picture of a toddler holding a worm with an appropriate Dune reference as the caption, because I am friends with the kind of people who do that with their kids. My friends are also all smart, interesting people for whom I have a lot of respect, and whose respect and affection I value highly.

Which is all to explain why I feel more than a little nervous and/or guilty admitting that I keep expecting to love Dune, and I just . . . don’t?

Let me clarify what I mean by that, or rather what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that I’m finding it dull: on the contrary, I’m finding the interplay of religion and politics and ecology very interesting on an intellectual level. I don’t mean that it’s poorly written: the writing often feels abrupt to me, but in a way that suits the harshness of the physical and social environments depicted (and I’m generally a fan of writing whose style either reinforces or complicates its subject). I don’t even mean that I’m sorry I volunteered to read it for work, though my friends could tell you that I seem to do a lot of putting off reading in favor of re-watching Leverage or (finally) reading Questionable Content. (Though, actually, there are a whole lot of Dune references in QC, many of which I would be missing if I weren’t reading the book right now.)

When I started the book, however, I expected to love it. I expected to start reading and get hooked and be unable to put it down. I expected to immerse myself in the story and refuse to come out. I expected to be reading it a lot faster than I have been, and I expected that by seventy pages from the end I’d be anticipating rereading it someday.

Instead it feels like homework. I mean the good kind of homework — the kind that has you continuing to think and learn on your own so that you have something to discuss when you come to class the next day — but homework nonetheless. Maybe it’s because I’ve been slowly working on educating myself about Islam and about the Middle East but am still in the early stages of that process, so a lot of words are jumping out and snatching my attention away from the story. Maybe it’s because when I started reading Dune I was reading in small chunks, so I never really built up momentum. Maybe it’s because the language suits the story but isn’t the kind of language I personally fall in love with, nor is it the kind of language I find next to invisible. Maybe I just have too many other things I’m excited about right now.

Reading it has, however, had one unexpected benefit: it’s been the kick in the butt I needed to get working on my own writing again. It’s kind of funny, actually — I’m used to the art that makes me want to write being the art that I do love. Instead I find myself reading and thinking, “Yes, this is very interesting, but the parts that interest me mostly do so because of how they relate to this other story in my head, and right now I’m a lot more invested in that other story.” I find myself thinking that I’d probably get a lot out of rereading the book at some point, but the thought of forcing myself to do so just makes my research reading look that much more appealing.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here, though I’m pretty sure it’s not the obvious moral. (“Read your metaphorical vegetables, kids, because they’re good for you even if you haven’t developed a taste for them yet!”) Perhaps I wish only to confess to you, my brothers and sisters (and siblings of non-binary genders), my failure to get it. Perhaps I’m waiting for someone to say that thing that will cast the book in a new, more flattering light, like that time I was complaining about having to read The Song of Roland again and my friend protested, “But it’s awesome! It’s like an action movie!” and suddenly the verse after verse of interchangeable guys cleaving each other in two from their heads through their horses clicked for me.

Or maybe I just needed to say, “Hey, this is where I am right now, but I need to hold myself accountable for those last seventy pages before I can move on to something else.”

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Some thoughts on growing and re-visiting, in three parts.

About a month ago I went to my five-year college reunion. Most of what I remember is how good it felt to reconnect with friends and how much I enjoyed the fireworks, but one conversation also stands out in my mind. It was late at night, and a whole group of us were walking from one end of campus (where the fireworks had ended some time before) to the other end of campus (where our cars were); because we were a large group and walked at different paces, we ended up spread out so that one friend and I were ahead of everyone else.

It was a strange experience, that walk. Good-but-strange-but-good, I think I said, and my friend agreed — good because it was familiar and pleasant to walk a path we had walked so many times over so many years, strange because both we and the campus had changed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but again good because we had changed, and the campus had changed, and we could measure ourselves by that. I don’t think I was a bad person then, but I’ve grown a lot and most of it in positive ways, and it was nice to feel that reflected in my reaction to the space.

I noticed it particularly because I’ve been having that experience a lot lately. I don’t know if it’s something specific to being in one’s late twenties? Or if I’ve just happened to be re-visiting old haunts (both geographic and artistic) lately? But I also remember telling my friend about how I’d been re-watching some old X-Files episodes a while back and found that my fondness for Mulder had been at least partially replaced by annoyance. I’d remembered him as driven, exasperating but lovable; this time around I was annoyed by how immediately he put himself in Scully’s personal space. I wanted to shout at him, “She is a colleague and a stranger, and your behavior is totally inappropriate and unprofessional!” It bothered me less in later episodes when their close friendship was already established, but even then I found myself thinking, “Scully, you are even more awesome than I remembered and you can totally do better.”

I recently found myself on a bus full of eighth graders watching the movie Frozen for the first time. I liked it — not-especially-princess-y female lead, magically gifted second female lead who learns to embrace her power and is ultimately able to find positive ways to use it and find acceptance within her community, emphasis on the importance of friend/sibling bonds, romantic relationships based on trust and respect, and the big kiss is prefaced by a “may I?” — but I didn’t love it. And that bothered me, because with a list like that surely I should have loved it? Because I’m me, I spent a lot of time trying to tease out why.

Here’s what I came up with: first of all, I think if it had existed when I was a kid I would have loved it. Probably it would’ve been up there with Beauty and the Beast. But as an adult, it felt like it was all surface. If Elsa’s gift was no problem up until the accident, why was it suddenly this big scary thing that had to be hidden/controlled? If Elsa had lived her entire life in isolation and fear of people, how the heck did she overcome that so quickly to be able to live surrounded by people and to fulfill a political role that would require a lot of social interaction and visibility? And if the people were so afraid of Elsa’s power, would they really welcome her back so quickly? A lot of the individual character moments were good, but so much of what would have drawn me in was this story of a powerful/gifted young woman finding a way to embrace her own gifts without having to withdraw from the community to do so and it just . . . wasn’t there, at least not on screen.

Maybe that wouldn’t even have disappointed me so much if I hadn’t just read Mikki Kendall’s story “If God Is Watching” a short time before. Like Frozen, it’s about a girl/young woman who has an unusual gift, one which can be used to help or to harm. Like Frozen, it begins with a young girl accidentally hurting someone. Like Frozen, the girl’s parents try to protect her, the girl ends up leaving home, the girl (now a young woman) ends up having a strong relationship with a sibling (in this case her brother), and she ultimately decides how she wants to use her gift as a member of a community. But unlike Frozen, in this story the parents teach their daughter not only how to control her power but how to use it in ways that can help people. In this story both siblings have gifts and use them in subtle ways to create a home for themselves and to build a community. In this story all of the characters have scars, or things they’d rather keep hidden, and our main characters accept each other without judgment or shame. When the protagonist is faced with her final choice about whether to use her power (and, if so, to what end), it is a choice she makes for herself and we as readers get to see what options and moral implications she considered in making it. “If God Is Watching” has depth; its characters (aside from the villains, anyway) are good not because they are perfect, but because they are imperfect in an imperfect world and they don’t let that stop them from being themselves or from acting with compassion and respect for one another.

I feel bad comparing Frozen and “If God Is Watching,” enough that I considered not writing about them (at least not together). I worry that it does both of them a disservice. But the more I tried to figure out why I wasn’t more excited about Frozen, the more I kept coming back to “If God Is Watching.” And the more I kept thinking about both of them, and about my inability to experience Frozen as my younger self would have, the more I kept coming back to this idea of re-visiting, re-watching, re-reading, etc. as a way to observe the passage of time, to make visible the incremental growth of days and weeks and months and years.

A while back I spoke with one of my colleagues, a reading specialist, about possible changes to independent reading as it’s currently assigned in our school and which changes would or would not match which purposes. One issue I should have thought of but didn’t until she pointed it out was re-reading: right now books that students re-read do not fulfill their independent reading requirements for class. Now, there are a number of reasons for this that I don’t want to get into here. It did remind me, though, of the many benefits to having some of one’s reading be re-reading.

I am someone who re-reads books. (I am also someone who re-watches TV and movies.) For a long time I had very limited shelf space and limited money for buying books, so the only books I bought were ones I’d already read several times and knew I would want to read again. Sometimes I re-read books because I’m stressed out and I want something familiar. Sometimes I re-read books because I enjoyed them in the past and I want to enjoy them again. Sometimes I re-read books because they were formative for me and there is some truth of which I need to be reminded.

This doesn’t mean that I never read books that are new to me. Sometimes I read new books because they sound interesting and I want to read them. Sometimes I read new books because none of the books I’ve already read is quite what I’m looking for in that moment. Sometimes I read new books simply because they are new, because I want to learn something or want the experience of not knowing what happens next instead of the experience of reading something half-remembered or mostly-memorized.

I realize not everyone re-reads like I do, but for someone like me I think books can be like people in this way. Sometimes you meet a book/person and enjoy the interaction and then go your separate ways; other times you meet a book/person and form a connection that keeps bringing you back, so that your relationship continues and grows over time. And when it comes to that latter category, some relationships you outgrow, some relationships can be sustained largely by nostalgia and shared history, and some relationships continuously evolve.

As a reader and a writer and a teacher and librarian and a person, I think re-reading is important — not everything, and not all the time, but it needs to be treated as “real” reading and it’s a practice I would encourage for everyone at least occasionally. On a scholarly/academic level I think it’s important to re-read in order to understand the balance between the words on a page, which do not change, and the meaning we make of them, which changes as we do. I think it’s even more important on a human level, however: I think it’s important to revisit old stories and old ideas and see which ones still work for us and which we want to set aside, to be reminded that we are not and need not try to be fixed points.


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.


In which I am just not reading enough.

I am a bad sister. I was home visiting with my family last night and I completely forgot to bring my brother my trade copies of The Unwritten, which I’d promised to lend him. I also forgot to read any of the comics he lent me so that I could return them.

Lately I feel like I’ve been bad about reading in general, which is especially silly for someone who’s a writer and librarian and who loves reading as much as I do. The problem is that I want to read, but I also want to crochet, and even if the pattern I’m working on is simple enough to leave sufficient attention for reading I just don’t have enough hands to crochet and hold a book open at the same time. This leads me to wonder about cookbook holders, which would solve the not-enough-hands problem if I were reading cookbook-sized things, but usually I’m reading mass-market or trade paperback-sized things and I’m not sure they’d work. (If anyone has experience with them, or knows of some other device that would let me read actual paper books mostly hands-free, I would love recommendations!)

My other problem is that I tend to use music and television for company when I’m home alone, and I just don’t do well processing reading/writing and speaking/listening at the same time. Give me a computer and I can browse the Internet while carrying on several simultaneous IM conversations; give me a conversation with several different people and I can enjoy that too. Ask me a simple question while I’m writing, though? I won’t hear it, or I will but the meaning won’t register until I stop and switch gears. And I do usually listen to music while working on a story, but stories tend to have their own playlists and it’s more for atmosphere than because I’m really listening to the music itself. Anyway, given a choice between reading in a silent apartment or doing something else that gives me the illusion of company, I tend to go with the latter.

I think it will be easier when spring comes and it’s not dark so early. In the meantime, though, I will have to make the conscious decision that from now until I go to bed tonight I will not watch more Flashpoint or listen to more Matthew Ebel (who appeared at Arisia right around the time that I was getting bored with all the music I’d been listening to, but more on that later). Instead I will read more of Code Name Verity and hope that that is not a stupid choice for right before sleep.