Celebrating an Escape into Fiction

News flash: A compelling novel can magically transport you to another world.

Apparently this lifelong reader needed that reminder this past weekend. I’ve been feeling creatively underpowered, as I’ve written, but I’ve also been physically unwell and busier than usual at my day job. So this weekend I traveled to a dystopian future world called Panem. Fans of the Suzanne Collins trilogy will understand that this meant I read the three Hunger Games books.

Kudos to Hollywood for inspiring me–I had seen Catching Fire on Imax a week earlier and the story hadn’t left me–so I read the first book on Saturday and the second two on Sunday. My family just moved around me as I sat and read, like they were avoiding a south-going zax.

There was one thing I did this weekend other than read fiction. My wife and kids joined me on a tour of the White House to see it decorated for Christmas. Fortunately we went on Saturday, the day before the big winter storm came!

There was one thing I did this weekend other than read fiction. My wife and kids joined me on a tour of the White House to see it decorated for Christmas. Fortunately we went on Saturday, the day before the big winter storm came!

I spent my childhood buried in fantasy and science fiction novels. But as an adult I’ve migrated more into nonfiction. For the two years in my MFA program I read almost exclusively creative nonfiction, namely biographies and memoirs. My Goodreads account reflects the fact that I have continued that pattern following my July graduation. I now see two flaws in that approach:

  1. It is much harder for me to read for pleasure post-MFA: I now feel I have a reading superpower. I imagine that an architect must walk through a building and feel she has X-ray vision that penetrates the drywall to see the entire structural support system. I experience something similar when I read now; I am constantly seeing what the author is doing to advance narrative lines, character arcs, etc. But it can take some of the fun out of reading, turning it almost into some kind of clinical exam.
  2. It is harder to fully escape our present world with nonfiction: I incorporate tools of the fiction writer in writing creative nonfiction, but ultimately what I write–what any nonfiction writer should write–is fact. (See my Freshly Pressed post on “truthiness” for more on this subject.) Collins has created a fascinating setting in Panem–a dystopian future world on par with the greats of literature–and because she is bound only by her imagination, she can more easily transport the reader far from the tedium of reality.

If you want to know my thoughts on the three books, you can read my Goodreads reviews. I fear I had a hard time completely turning off that clinical eye that I mention in #1 above. I also, perhaps unfairly, kept comparing the books to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, one of the best works of fantasy ever written. But what I will say is that the books found me at a time when I needed them. It was a reminder to me of how fiction writers make our world more livable, even when they are writing about worlds in which we would not want to live. So thank you Suzanne Collins, and all fiction writers.

Do you write fiction? Do you too find yourself longing to escape into another writer’s world?

On a final note, I’d like to welcome the new subscribers I’ve picked up in the last week since my post “Creativity and the Aging Brain” was featured on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed. This is the second time this year I have been selected for that honor. The timing was fantastic; I needed a little positive reinforcement. And it’s always good to have more readers, particularly since what drives The Artist’s Road is the conversation occurring below the posts. Cheers!

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

27 Responses to “Celebrating an Escape into Fiction”

  1. Great post, Patrick. As someone who also grew up reading fantasy and primarily writes in that genre, I think fantasy definitely offers an escape for many readers. At the same time, fantasy stories still bear a level of realism–with characters who we can relate to and often addressing issues that parallel ones in our own society. This duality is what appeals to me as a reader and writer.

    • Fully agree, particularly on the characters. Tolkien and Rowling created amazingly complex and compelling plots, but were at their best when his characters moved beyond merely devices to advance the plot and became complex individuals facing challenging moral decisions, which is very much the world we live in.

  2. The challenge of reading for pleasure for a writer is one I resonate with. I had a similar thing happen with watching theatre as I started studying the craft as well. As soon as you see how things work behind the illusion, you can never go back to the uninformed audience perspective. What I find now is that poorly executed theatre or writing irritates me more than ever because I see the inner workings. However, my pleasure when a play or novel has captured me and pulled me in so deeply that I did not see the technique is heightened by my awareness of how difficult a task that is.

    And, with regard to the escape into another writer’s world. Yes, I yearn for that experience, always.

    • Thanks, Kate. Very interesting to hear you’ve experienced that with theatre. I should ask my daughter if she is finding that now when she looks at someone else’s photograph. Great to know you can still be pulled in to the extent you stop “seeing” the technique.

  3. Thanks so much for this post, Patrick. As a mostly non-fiction reader (and writer), I often need a reminder that I’m “allowed” to read fiction too — and fun fiction at that! (Plus it’s always good to familiarize yourself with what your kids are reading and seeing)… I love reading about your struggles with writing because it’s a constant battle for me as a mom of three with many other more “important” things to do. And some days the writing comes more easily than others. Fiction as a mini-vacation — ahhh.

    • Thanks, Carrington. Yes, there are always more “important” things to do, and sometimes I tell myself that should be writing. But of course writers should always read, including outside their genre.

  4. Like you, I tend to read way more nonfiction than fiction, and I’m always pleasantly surprised when I do read fiction by how relaxing and enjoyable it is. D’oh! Why don’t I think of that when I’m in one of my left-brain uptight twizzles? It’s mostly the time factor for me. Since I know I will turn into a south-going zax, I avoid starting.

    Have you heard that quote about how shamans ask depressed people, among other questions, “When did you stop being enchanted by stories?” It’s easy for me to get too serious and neglect my imagination. I might use this as a red flag: when I start to feel stressed or unmotivated, perhaps it means I’ve been spending too much time in the real world.

    • I had not heard that question, Sue, but I like it. And of course the non-fiction I’m drawn to is good storytelling, like Lee Gutkind describes creative nonfiction, “True stories well told.” But true stories can often have too much of the real world. It’s funny in a way that the Hunger Games series involves lots of cases of torture and death and yet is escapism!🙂

  5. Funny you should mention the draw of fiction to a nonfiction writer! Your timing is uncanny. I recently had surgery and was off work for two weeks which afforded me a rare luxury of reading time. I devoured The Goldfinch by Donna Tarte. It’s a real tome of a novel that spins out from a traumatic event that takes place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I laid around on the couch, sipping coffee, fire blazing in the fireplace and got lost in a different universe. The result? Kind of life altering. It’s a fantastic book, incredibly well written. The Goldfinch also brought back the pleasure of a having a the heft of a heavy hardback book spread open on your lap. I could rub the dog’s ear with one hand and drink my coffee with the other at the same time! I’d forgotten this feeling since I seem to read mostly paperback nonfiction that won’t lie flat no matter how many times I try to break the spine. In the end, I have no doubt that the experience of reading this book along with the novel itself aided my recovery in body, spirit, and mind.

    • Thank you, Ginny, for sharing this story and also putting me in the scene: rubbing the dogs ear and drinking coffee by the fire, the normal struggle with books that won’t fold flat. I don’t have a dog, but the rest of it could be me! I’m so glad your recovery from surgery went well and that a good novel was there to help you.

  6. Sympathies for your recent mental and physical situation. Been the same for me. Writing for my blog has kept me going when all other creative inspiration had gone underground! Wish I had found yours sooner, but glad to have it now. Thank you.

  7. Hi Patrick, I’m fairly new to your blog and, as a fellow writer, I’m really enjoying reading through your previous posts! A little over ten years ago, I received an MA in creative writing with a concentration in fiction. While I write mostly fiction, I don’t read it nearly as much as I used to. Due to a number of factors, I have also found that my power of concentration just isn’t what it used to be. I agree with you that fiction has the power to transport us out of the humdrumness and challenges of everyday life. I no longer have the oodles of free time I had in my younger days — I would love to take a time out from life and get completely lost in the world of a really good novel. Thank you for this post and happy reading!

    • I love welcoming new readers! I hear what you are saying about the power of concentration; let me posit that is true for all of modern society. Nick Carr in a book called The Swallows cites evidence that spending so much time reading short pieces and hopping from place to place online has actually impaired our ability to sit with one written work for a lengthy period of time. Our brain’s synapses literally rewire themselves. The good news is that we can push synapses the other way if we stick with the longer reading projects, but it won’t necessarily be as easy. Kudos on your MA, by the way!

  8. Good for you, Patrick – finally claiming some extremely-well-earned ‘me-time!’ (or is it ‘you-time’ when someone else is referring to you – I never really sorted that out in my head..?)

    I take my hat off to you and everyone else who specialises in non-fiction; I have done it in the past but it has to be in short bursts with loonnnngg breaks in between, or I end up with the droopy face of a sad puppy. Just don’t have the discipline for it, unfortunately. Fiction writing, on the other hand, is my ticket to writing heaven. Well, most of the time anyway (when it’s not the hell of a writing block.)

    I know what you mean about your MFA turning reading into ‘the exercise of an club member’ though ;^). The downside of WRITING fiction is that it’s made me a lot more choosy about the fiction I READ. Not because I rate my own work so highly (heck, no!) but because these days I’m focusing quite heavily on getting my own novel finished, so anything that takes me away from doing that had better be worth it. So, although I START reading lots of books (with the best of intentions) I don’t get to FINISH many these days.

    I’ll admit I do sometimes get ‘techie-nerd urges’ when reading really great fiction – thinking about how I’d add to the story, what I’d change, etc. – but I’ve never had an urge to write fanfiction stuff, no matter how fantastic I thought the original was. I prefer to build things from scratch rather than use a ready-made ‘kit,’ if you see what I mean.

    • Hello Wendy!

      I’m glad to hear you aren’t finishing every book you read. I’ve stalled on a few in recent months: a memoir, a biography, and a novel. I finally admitted I wasn’t going to finish that novel last week and removed it from my Goodreads “reading” shelf because it was like a big flashing sign that I was failing! The fact is I just wasn’t sufficiently into the story.

      I also understand your urge to build things from scratch. I am envious of fiction writers because you get to create your own characters; I understand the urge to write fan fiction but I wouldn’t like having to tell a fictional story about people someone else had created. I don’t even like writing prompts!🙂

  9. Beautifully said Patrick. We’ve been away far too long & look forward to popping over for a visit, as your writing, is always thought provoking and inspiring read. Brilliant post as it is most important to take something from fantasy just as it is reality. Loving all things fiction, we couldn’t agree with you more on your opinion of the great JK Rowling who holds that prestigious title deservedly. The Hunger Games wasn’t a huge favorite of ours but even so we still kept reading and took something from it. What we really liked was your statement, “But what I will say is that the books found me at a time when I needed them.” My mother, (Inion’s Nana) began reading Twilight shortly after my father died. To this day, she tells others that the book got her thru. Now, of course, Vampires didn’t ease the blow of my fathers death. What it did do for her was keep her mind busy and on a love that to her, was similar to her own. Married for 49 years when my father passed, he immortalized into her first love, hero & yes, Edward Cullen. Although the books didn’t do much for Inion as she is not a fan of the series, she gives Stephanie her dues. As if she can get one widow thru I dreaded black cloud in her life. Then her story was most definitely a perfect read! Excellent post sharing now. 🙂

    • Look who’s back! Welcome.

      I love the anecdote about the Twilight series. That is a power of fiction, to allow us to see ourselves in another character and be inspired. Here, however, I’ll go so far as to say nonfiction has that power as well, as we can see ourselves in the author of a memoir or the subject in a biography. The latter technically is more “real,” but it’s all “real” to us when we’re reading it.

      On a separate note, I hope the writing is going well for you two!

  10. I agree with you. I recently read a sequel in a series that I particularly enjoy and was kind of…disappointed. I was analyzing the writing and it was weak. I couldn’t enjoy the story and I miss the days where I could just read without constantly scrutinizing everything I read. Oh well.

  11. I write both non-fiction and fiction (and can only read one while writing the other…no mixing like and like). I like Collins’ trilogy a lot.🙂 I’m just sad that I’ve gone from devouring 2-4 books a week to a book a month while I’m writing/editing. I like the breaks in between so I can get lost in the world of another writer.🙂

    • I hear you on the challenge of writing and editing while also reading, particularly immersive reading. There is also the danger, for me at least, of an author with a very strong voice having a temporary influence on my own voice. That happens with far less frequency now; more often what happens is if I’m reading something great while writing that I’ll see a nice craft move that inspires a solution to something I’ve been wrestling with in my own work.

  12. Patrick, as a reader with a preference for non-fiction, I am constantly invigorated by the fiction I do read. It is so un-expected to be captured by a story that has been developed from the thoughts of someone. I think that the writers of fiction should take a collective bow and a quiet Christmas port, as celebration of their talents. Back to the Christmas pudding!

  13. Hi Patrick, sorry to leave another comment, but we wanted to let you know that we’ve mentioned your blog on our newest post. We recently we’re invited to speak at a Middle School in North Carolina, about our book. During the event, we gave the children four blogs to read that we believe would help them on their journey’s as writers. Yours was one of the four we gave. You can find the mention here & Happy Holidays friend. http://inionnmathair.wordpress.com/

    • Thank you! That’s good company I’m with: Jane Friedman, Kristen Lamb, Roz Morris and Ollin Morales. I’ve interacted with all of them here and there and they’re all quite good bloggers. And Roz did a guest post here a few months ago!

  14. Just saw this: http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/news/health/314426/reading-cuts-stress-levels-by-68.html It’s about research showing that reading reduces stress levels by 68%.

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