But I HAVE to Finish It: Cleaning One’s Literary Plate

My book club met last night and one member was debating whether or not to complete a Pulitzer Prize winning modern classic that was last month’s selection. A good book, but it didn’t engage her. We all admitted to our discomfort about not finishing a book. I’m the only one in the club who writes reviews, so the other members’ reluctance has nothing to do with that. It’s the relationship with the book. We respect them, and feel guilty about giving up on them.

 This came up on the same day I posted what I think may be my last two star review. I don’t regret reading the other books I rated that low because they had strengths that made me care, and made me want to critique them like a beta reader. This last one exhausted me. I never should have made myself finish reading it, and reviewing took hours of self-torment about how to say what I thought without being cruel or snarky. The only thing that kept me going was that I had agreed to review it. Even though the group I was reviewing for says it’s okay to stop reading, no questions asked, I felt obligated due to a shortage of reviewers.

Other people have liked this book. I didn’t. How important is that, compared to the stress of reading it and the greater stress of reviewing it? I think there are some people who take pleasure in writing bad reviews, but I’m not one of them.  If I’d cut loose and verbally torn the book up, that would have been easy but self-indulgent, and no use to readers in deciding if they might like the book or not. I revise reviews obsessively for days, especially the bad ones. I enjoy polishing the good ones and the in-between ones, but the bad ones are torment, out of proportion to their importance. My opinion is not that valuable, and I’m not being paid. Reviews are useful, but I can stop reading and write “did not finish and be done with it. If everyone did that, though, no one would ever get a bad review, just a “did not finish”, which is uninformative to prospective readers. Some get distrustful when an author has only good reviews. They think that the writer must have bought them, or had friends and family write them, even if the good reviews are genuine.  Also, I’ve read many posts on Goodreads in which people say that the things a reviewer disliked in a critical review made them want to read a book. The mean, vitriolic reviews get disregarded. The thoughtful bad reviews don’t.

Still, I hate writing them. It’s much worse than getting them. I can read a critical reaction to my own work and be done with it. I decide if I see a valid problem pointed out that can make me a better writer in future books, a perception so at odds with most reviews that it’s not important, or simply an expression of taste for a different kind of book. It takes a minute. But when I’m reviewing I don’t think of it as something the author or potential reader will move through that way. Maybe I take it too seriously. For now, I’ll review what I finish, and I’ll only finish what I find valuable to read, whether it’s for pleasure and entertainment or for making me think and learn, deepening my perspective. If I don’t like a book, I’m letting it go. I need to spend my time writing, and reading other books.

How do you feel about not finishing a book?


The Ruler in the River

It was six feet deep today. At this time last summer I didn’t even want to look. The river was more empty space, dirt and algae than a Rio Grande. The powers that control its flow from the dam at Elephant Butte had shut it off early. This summer it’s wide, fast flowing and full, reflecting blue sky and the green of the narrow band of thick vegetation that clings to its banks. In the powerful heat, the trail smelled like sage, and butterflies and dragonflies floated by.

So did noise, and trash. I normally like my fellow humans, but I like nature better without them, except for the silent, contemplative fishermen standing on the banks. The rafters, with plastic water bottles and sunscreen bottles spilling out of their bobbing crafts, were such an obvious source of litter, even if unintentional, that I didn’t want them there. The rope swing crowd whooping, splashing, floating a ways downstream, and going back to the swing by land, scared away the wildlife. I didn’t see a single heron or even a lizard.

I found a spot halfway between the fishermen and the rope-swingers, and waded knee deep. The water isn’t very cold. But I could see how incredibly fast it was further out. Gazing at the stillness of the desert  hills on the other side, I had the dizzying feeling of being the one moving while the river held still, like being on a train and watching the land fly by.

In other parts of the country this wouldn’t be a grand river, even when it’s six feet deep. The ruler goes up to ten feet ten inches, at which point the trail would be partly submerged, making the river a little wider and no longer walkable. Still, it could only be a major body of water in the parched Southwest. I remember coming to the east and crossing the James River Bridge in Newport News and being stunned, almost terrified, that a river could be that enormous and deep and blue. It wasn’t that I thought I could fall off the bridge or anything like that, it was just the strangeness of such a river. In Snake Face Jamie gets lost and crosses that bridge by accident, and being prone to panic attacks, it troubles him far more. If there was ruler in that river, it would be a deity, some god of water, not a stick.

And then there’s the Santa Fe River, whose empty bed is a major location in Shaman’s Blues. Sometimes it has no water at all.  I get excited when I see water in it, especially when there’s enough to flow, not just trickle. Other times, I can walk in the riverbed as easily as on the trails along the banks. It’s a river of memory then, the path made by a river that once was deep enough to measure

Dancing In New Mexico Part Three

Hillsboro New Mexico is one of the many barely-there towns in the southern part of the state. A former mining town, it’s now a self-described “living ghost town” with little more than a main street, some historical sites, beautiful scenery, and a lively community center. In the middle of nowhere, people come out for the arts, from wherever these culture-lovers hide in the desert. I took the winding mountain road into the town, and found the community center by looking for a place with cars in front of it. There were no signs, not even one naming the street.

I could hear the music already rolling through the adobe walls. When I came in, the audience was seated, except of course for my ever-ready dancing buddy. He was standing, a fit early-sixties white guy wearing a sort of African-ish shirt, and as soon as we saw each other, we cut loose. At first we had the whole back of the community hall to ourselves. West African drum group Agalu was sending out a song so exciting, so energizing, I don’t know how anyone could sit through it, but they did. The publicity had said, “this is music that will make you want to dance.” More than want—I don’t know if I could have chosen to hold still.

At last, a graceful, well-dressed woman, youthful in every way except her salt and pepper hair, joined us, and I told her my friend was now in heaven—two women to dance with. My relationship with him is platonic, and he always tells me all about his latest attempts to break the dry spell in his love life. She seemed to flirt with him, and he later claimed the man she’d been sitting with kept giving him dirty looks, but maybe that added to the fun, a little sense of risk and adventure.

The music was frenzied with joy, and yet it took a few more songs to break the dry spell in Hillsboro’s dancing life. And when it did, it was like a monsoon cloudburst. From the audience came a wave of women, all but one of them gray-haired, most of them full-figured. Pardon my sudden shift of imagery—the ladies caught fire. They waved and shook and swayed and stomped. It made the music seem even more vibrant, as inhibitions fell away and people merged with the beat. The happiness level in the room skyrocketed.

I have a painting at home of an African village dance, showing a line of women proudly shaking everything they’ve got. These joyous elders reminded me of it. The musicians must get their energy up when the audience responds to the music. Something seemed to build.  One song made me feel absolutely possessed, as if the drums were dancing me. Agalu means “spirit of the drum” and that spirit took over. In my forthcoming third book Snake Face, during one of Jamie’s performances on his troubled tour, he gets respite from his problems when he has that experience of being “propelled by a kind of electricity in his spine, hips, and feet, driven by a dance that danced him.” If you’ve ever felt that, you know what I mean, and now you know the word for it. Agalu.

I caught the attention of the only under-forty woman in the crowd as she danced near me, and suggested we circle the room. The women—and my dancing buddy— followed us, each dancer improvising a solo at the front near the stage, honoring the drummers, thanking them.

Outdoors during the break between sets my friend told me he sincerely believes the way he will die is to be shot by a jealous husband. A friendly stranger, a man with long dark hair, didn’t look up from taking a picture of the artwork in front of the community center, as he said, “I hear you. Always look at the man she’s with.” I’d noticed he walked with a cane, and imagined an injury received from the man he hadn’t looked at, the one who taught him to check first.

After the break several men joined the dancing. One gentleman of about seventy, a small trim white-bearded man, looked amazed and a little confused, as if his own public dancing was the most surprising thing he’d experienced in a long time. Am I really doing this? It’s fun, but… He kept dancing. The man whose female companion danced in trio with my friend and me never did get up and join the fun. Of all the people in the room, that couple and the photographer with the cane are most likely to end up as characters in a story. I already have a fictitious African drum group based in Santa Fe in my books. They could play in Hillsboro. The possibilities are endless for what could happen next.

From Agalu’s web site:

Agalu is led by Akeem Ayanniyi, who is the ninth generation of his family to play the traditional Yoruba talking drum. Ayanniyi, from the Western Nigerian town of Erin Oshun near the historic art center of Oshogbo, has been performing since the age of five and has toured much of Africa as well as Germany, Brazil, Sweden and the United States as a performer and teacher. He settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1993 and founded Agalu in 1998.