In the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday, Death becomes human for three days so he can understand why people are afraid of him. This being Hollywood, he of course takes the form of a Duke, falls in love, and has to choose between letting his mortal love live but leaving her behind or taking her with him. He learns much about the power of love, and of course there’s a twist at the end.
I’ve been taking a different sort of holiday. This summer, and for the first time in twelve years, I’m taking a break from writing every day, either early morning on weekdays before I go to work or later in the morning on weekends.
It’s a routine I got into in 2009 when I started working on my first novel Sons and Fathers (2014), and it’s one I’ve kept up through my second, The Art of Being Lewis, (2019), my third, The Great Goldbergs, which will be released in 2022.
But it wasn’t easy to break a habit that had stood me in good stead for over decade. At first I felt incomplete, or like I was slacking off. And then gradually I realized my writing holiday was a just reward for twelve years of effort and dedication and a burst of productivity over the last couple years.
Earlier this year, I also completed a collection of short stories. Called Stories of My Father’s Courage, the manuscript was inspired by stories my father told me when I was growing up and also some of my experiences as both a child and a father. And I’ve completed a second book of poems. All this to say, I found I needed a break from the hard work that goes into writing a novel.
In addition to taking a break from writing literary novels, I found I also needed a break from reading them. I just wanted to be entertained. So I’ve plunged into Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series and after a few short months, I find myself on book 26 or 27. I’ve lost count and all I know is that I have only one or at most two more to read.
In addition to being entertained, I’ve picked up a few things from Reacher. I have learned more about guns and ammunition than I ever thought possible. I also learned much about street fighting than I hope I will ever have to put into practice, but if I do, I will be indebted to Reacher. Never swing a bat. It takes too long. Don’t kick, or least don’t telegraph your intention beforehand as people can grab your leg. Head butts come in handy. And I’ve learned about the culture of soldiering. Child did some good research.
Child also thought carefully about the kind of stories he was going to write and about his main, recurring character. I appreciated Child’s introduction to the first book of the series where he goes back and describes how he came up with Reacher. He mentions that most people don’t remember most plots. I think he even goes so far as to say that only about five plots come around every century that are memorable. And he proves this out in his novels. I can only remember one or two, at most three of his plots, and even then just the broadest of outlines.
But Child also says that people remember character, and he is absolutely right. I remember his Reacher. And I admire the fact that Child has created a modern action hero based on a very old form of character: the knight errant of the Middle Ages who would go from place to place battling villains, standing up for values that were old-fashioned even then: truth, justice, kindness.
I also admire Child’s frenetic pacing, and his use of suspense, and the way he drives his narrative forward. I love his short sentences. His sentence fragments. His straightforward, unadorned prose.
My wife Kara often teases me about what she calls my long sentences and long paragraphs, and she tells me I’d attract more readers if I shortened both. It’s something I’ve thought about. I enjoy suspense both in my reading and my writing, and I try to instil my novels with suspense and sense of mystery.
But my writing unfolds at a more languid speed than most thrillers. I’ve come to realize it’s less of a choice than a matter of style, which is really an expression of character. My own character rather than any of my made-up ones. There’s that memorable construct again.
When I am ready, I will return to reading literary novels and to writing my own next novel. I already have two or three ideas that I am thinking through and starting to take notes on. But for now, I will enjoy this detour in my reading and writing journey. Or rather, this integral part of it.
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