My father dropped out of the ninth grade, abandoning his studies shortly after the first World War to help support his immigrant parents. Rather than continue his education on his own, he lived out his life eschewing “book learning.” I didn’t share his feelings. I craved the feel and the smell of every page I turned, always eager to learn about people from other countries and other centuries.
There were no libraries in our Queens neighborhood, but every few weeks the Bookmobile, an old school bus retooled to house hundreds of children’s books, stopped at our corner. I carried home as many books as my arms could hold, but soon I tired of the anthropomorphic frogs and geese and their juvenile interactions. I wanted chapters. Stories about people that made me think and wonder and understand. I begged my father to drive me to the nearest library. I skipped the children’s section and went right to the chapter books. I read about fishermen in Maine, pilgrimages to Agra, and the plight of virtuous nurses falling in love with flirtatious doctors. Every story to which I was drawn shared an important element: the characters were real people with whom I could empathize. Even as a child, I felt their pain, their challenge, their passion. I couldn’t wait to find out how their story might end. When I reached the last page, I held the book to my chest, often tearfully, and then began to read it again.
My love of reading and my respect for writers continued into adulthood and formed the basis of my calling: to guide screenwriters and authors as they deepen their stories. As a movie executive, I typically listened to ten verbal pitches each week and read a never-ending flow of screenplays, manuscripts and articles as I searched for that special story that was worthy of our company’s attention. When we found projects to develop, I offered editorial comments about character and structure and theme. My philosophy was to guide writers with suggestions but never to control their creative work. I maintained that philosophy when I shifted my career to teaching. I work with both new and experienced novelists and memoirists now, guiding them to find new levels of meaning in their books.
But all is not rosy. Many budding novelists don’t read novels, and I’m both amazed and chagrined by this. If they were learning to play the violin, surely they’d listen to concertos and symphonies. If they were learning to be portrait painters, they would no doubt visit museums and galleries. Sadly, I’ve encountered too many new writers who want to jump into Chapter One with very little reading experience behind them. They often balk when I recommend a novel they might benefit from reading, preferring instead to find inspiration from movies, television shows and video games. While these other mediums do have value to storytellers, they don’t display the same kind of nuance that can be found in fiction. It’s a magical experience, having pictures form in our mind as a result of the written word. It’s profoundly satisfying to read with empathy about individuals who populate our world. Readers of fiction have a deeper understanding of what it is to be human. Well-crafted stories serve as a mirror, reflecting back to us our own fears and shame, those darker emotional colors we’re loath to talk about. As I tell my students, it’s their responsibility as authors to imbue their characters with profound emotional truth in order to provide a meaningful and unforgettable reading experience.
Why else do we read fiction if not to follow the harrowing internal and often external journey of the protagonist, and then see how the character reaches a psychic shift at story’s end?
I wish my father would’ve chosen to improve his rudimentary reading skills and find the joy that I’ve always found in fiction, but he didn’t, and that can’t be changed.
Each time I recommend to a friend or a student a book that I feel might be beneficial to their own writing process, I’m reminded of my early days at the Bookmobile and the library in Queens, when I gathered up my pile of books and then rushed home to start reading.