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Ellen Blum Barish

Ellen Blum Barish

Earlier this year, I decided to stretch my literary ligaments by reading books outside of my regular go-to genre. So it’s been novels instead of my usual steady diet of essay collections and literary memoirs.

I really enjoyed Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng.) I loved The Friend (Sigrid Nunez.) And I’m really enjoying Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. But I wanted to like Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng), Commonwealth (Ann Patchett) and City of Girls (Elizabeth Gilbert) more. I started two or three other novels that I just couldn’t finish.

All of which brings me to: We like what we like.

An eloquent essay elevates me.

A meaningful memoir mesmerizes me.

It all began for me in the early 90s when personal essays were showing up in women’s magazines, the Sunday papers and on public radio. It was the era of the New York Times Hers column. Later it was the Lives column. There was Anna Quindlen’s “Life in the Thirties” column and Marion Winik’s radio essays on NPR and then, Modern Love. The essays explored work, motherhood, family, relationships, life, death and health in layered and honest ways.

I moved from essays to memoirs: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions and Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.These writers showed me how to make art from life with a willingness to go deep, choosing well-chosen words and metaphor. Then I discovered  Joan Didion, Jo Ann Beard, Brenda Miller, Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Roiphe, Abigail Thomas, Alison Bechdel and Dani Shapiro. There were male writers, too, of course: Jean Dominique-Bauby. David Sedaris. Brian Doyle. Phillip Lopate. James McBride. Darin Straus. Augusten Burroughs. Ta-Nehisi Coates.

But among the writers who wrote in all genres, what I leaned toward were the stories they wrote from their lives.

Friends – literary and otherwise – recommend, give or loan me their favorite fiction, insisting that I’ll love it. I do try them. If a writer doesn’t grab me in 50 pages, I simply have to move on. I have a life to lead. But rarely, if ever, did I fall in love with a novel like I have with a memoir or essay collection.

I take that back. I can think of one: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. It’s one of the rare books – novel or memoir – that I actually read twice.

It’s the job of a writer to take her reader by the head, hand or heart, I tell my writing students, to keep that reader engaged.

Too much to ask? Maybe.

But in this current attention-challenged climate, I think it’s even more important for writers to ensure that their readers get lost in their words.

I tend to like concise, thoughtful, spare and honest writing. Writing that’s funny and self-aware. I know there are plenty of novels and short story collections with these qualities. But for me, it’s more about the approach to the subject matter, the lens through which the writer is looking. I am pulled toward material that explores the psychological and the mysterious. Pieces that rely on curiosity about human nature with a hunger for insight and wisdom. Stories that invite the writer and reader to journey together to make meaning from them.

I’d like to think of myself as reader-curious. I often wish I was more genre-fluid. But I do think it’s worthwhile to be able to name the kind of work we like best. It tells us something about ourselves. For those of us who write, it’s valuable information that may help identify the form we want to explore with our own words.

Our choices are, after all, a miniature mirror. They are a small reflection of our authentic selves.

Whatever you are reading this summer, may it be full of exploration, escapism and self discovery.

 

Thinking ahead to Fall? Check out my selection of day and evenings workshops here.

 

 

 

 

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