on “putting oneself out there” and how it feels to fail

I thought I’d start this blog on a positive note with a post about rejection and failure.

That’s a joke; you can laugh. I’m not trying to make a profound statement about the value of failure. I believe it can be valuable, but that’s not what this post is about. Today, I want to start a conversation about how rejection and failure—and the fear thereof—feel in the moment you are experiencing them, before you start looking for life lessons and recalling all the inspiration quotes you’ve read about Thomas Edison and people like that. Let’s talk about what makes us feel these feelings and what we do to deal with them.

Academics are always at risk of rejection and failure. I am reading a book by Helen Sword called Air and Light and Time and Space: How Successful Academics Write (and really enjoying it! Perhaps I’ll review it here when I finish), and I found it delightfully ironic but not surprising that she included a chapter on failure in a book about successful people. The book consists largely of quotations from Sword’s extensive interviews with prolific and well-regarded (but not necessarily celebrity-level) scholars from across the disciplines, and in this chapter, they speak of rejection letters, bad reviews, discouraging colleagues and “mentors” (I put this in scare quotes because a discouraging mentor should be an impossibility), and the all too familiar fear of sharing one’s words and ideas with an audience of any size.

Sword’s book is addressed to professors who publish academically on a regular basis, which means I’m a little bit outside her target demographic. Perhaps some of you, like me, are in a position in which your primary duty is to teach and there is little or no expectation for you to publish. But that doesn’t mean you don’t consistently face rejection and failure too. For one thing, if you have a blog, a social media platform, or even a regular-person social media profile that your colleagues and students can find, your ideas (and your photos of sunrises and pumpkin spice lattes—I’m talking about myself here) have a larger audience than you might feel entirely comfortable with. If you are an online faculty member with creative control over your own course, your students are reading your words, hearing your voice, perhaps seeing your face each time they log into the course, and there’s always a risk that the students will find your mannerisms awkward or your teaching style overbearing, or that an activity or reading you assign will fall flat. Even if you see yourself as merely a facilitator of a course that someone else designed, you are still the breathing, human face of the course for your students, and every time you post grading feedback or send an email clarifying an instruction, there’s a chance your students will misunderstand or be offended or ignore you.

Why do we keep setting ourselves up for potential rejection or failure? Well, think about the alternatives—you could just not reply to your emails, or you could never try anything new in your course, or you could wear a paper bag over your head in your course videos (as just a few examples). I hope you agree with me that, while these alternatives may be enticing, they are not desirable options. The very same conditions that set you up for failure and rejection are also the conditions that allow you to teach, to encourage, to model, and—possibly—to change lives. But now I’m getting too inspirational. Let’s back up for a minute.

I want to talk about the specific scenarios that trigger those fears of rejection and failure. Please share in the comments below—what, in your teaching career, has made or regularly makes you want to hide under your desk? For me, one of the worst triggers is reading course evaluations. I think a big reason why these are so consistently scary for me is that my first full-time college-level instructional job was teaching a required, zero-credit course that many students regarded as remedial (which it was, even though we didn’t use that word) and as a punishment for not passing the placement test. Some students welcomed the opportunity, some begrudgingly came to admit that the course wasn’t a complete waste of their time, but others bore a semester-long grudge toward the course and took it out in the course evaluation. And of course, I read all the negative comments in the evaluations as if they were about me, as a person, even though many of them weren’t. So even though I’m now teaching courses that students tend to enjoy or at least find valuable, my heart rate still goes up and my palms get sweaty when I open those evaluations. I rush through them, seeking out negative comments so I can get them over with, which causes me to skim over and not fully appreciate the positive, sometimes even glowing, comments that now typically outnumber the bad ones. Course evaluations are supposed to be a tool to help faculty know how to improve their courses, but for me, they’re too tied up with ugly emotions to really be helpful. Like other things in academia that are supposed to be useful, they have become an ordeal instead (perhaps another post for another time?).

Here are some other scenarios that might trigger a fear of rejection or failure:

  • Presenting an idea in a committee meeting or email discussion
  • Asking for something (a pay increase, time off, the opportunity to teach a desired course)
  • Meeting with a new student who thinks you’re cool and wondering the whole time if her illusions about your awesomeness are being shattered (Does this sound oddly specific? It’s happened to me. By the way, this scenario involves imposter syndrome, a subcategory of today’s topic that I plan to write a whole post about soon.)

What are some of your scenarios? Why do you think they are triggers for you? Do they cause physiological symptoms like the ones I mentioned above? (The raised heart rate and sweaty palms are not just metaphors!) Is there anything you have learned to do to deal with these fears or at least mitigate their symptoms? (For example, in my welcome post, I mentioned that I might have my husband hold my hand while I read course evaluations.)

I’m excited about the community we are forming here, and I look forward to reading your thoughts on this topic. If you found this post helpful or mildly entertaining, tell a colleague or friend!

What’s next for Penelope?

I’ve been blogging at this site since December 2011. I started the blog so that I could review a couple of books that I wanted to receive for free. Since then, I’ve written about topics as serious as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and as frivolous as my hypothetical Roller Derby name. I’ve told numerous embarrassing stories about cooking mishaps and breaking things. I’ve reviewed movies and albums, shared a couple of fan fiction stories, and hijacked the blog for a couple of months as a promotional platform for my self-published novel. I once seriously considered and made some steps toward re-branding this into a “Hufflepuff leadership” blog. (I still think someone should do that.) I’ve written about my job, my faith, and lately, my marriage. And I have nine partial drafts in my queue, including a “zany” travel mishap story that turned out to be boring when I wrote it down and a post tentatively called “what Ross Geller has in common with almost every Jimmy Stewart character (and me?).” (This one was doomed from the start.)

I realize that if I kept pressing forward for another year and a half, I could celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog. But I think it’s time for me to end this long chapter in my writing life. I’ll keep the WordPress account in case I want to write a special post now and then, but these will likely be rare. Writing will always be one of my primary means of processing my thoughts and feelings, but not all of that writing needs to be shared with a readership.

Speaking of you, my readers–I know I’ve always had a small following, but you’ve been incredibly faithful. Some of you left long, frequent comments on my posts; others read the blog quietly for months, maybe years, before dropping into a face-to-face conversation the fact that you were reading it–always a delightful surprise. Thank you for paying attention.

I’ve thought for a while that it would be fun to have a podcast or a YouTube channel (actually, I have a great channel idea that I’m trying to convince my husband to help me with), but I don’t think I’ll jump into anything like that anytime soon. I’m thankful for the years I’ve been able to share my thoughts with you, and I hope we can stay in touch by other methods. Now I’m going to go cry a little.

Jesus was busy.

Last week, I told you about Forest, an app that helps with productivity. I’ve been using it again this week, and it’s helping me a lot. I have quite the little forest going. Actually, it’s more of a meadow; I’m currently planting grass tufts instead of trees.

This week, I want to tell you about something infinitely more important than productivity: a quiet heart. I would like to quote at length from a book I am rereading, A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller. Here is what Miller says about the integrated nature of the praying life:

Many assume that the spiritual person is unruffled by life, unfazed by pressure. This idea that the spiritual person floats above life comes from the ancient world and, in particular, the Greek mind–although we see it strongly in the Eastern mind as well.

But even a cursory glance at Jesus’ life reveals a busy life. All the gospel writers notice Jesus’ busyness, although Mark in particular highlights it. At one point Jesus’ family tries to stage an intervention because he is so busy. “Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him,, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind'” (Mark 3:20-21). Given the sacredness in the ancient world of eating together, Jesus’ life seems out of balance. But he loves people and has the power to help, so he has one interruption after another. If Jesus lived today, his cell phone would be ringing constantly.

The quest for a contemplative life can actually be self-absorbed, focused on my quiet and me. If we love people and have the power to help, then we are going to be busy. Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life: it offers us a less busy heart. In the midst of outer busyness we can develop an inner quiet. Because we are less hectic on the inside, we have a great capacity to love…and thus to be busy, which in turn drives us even more into a life of prayer. By spending time with our Father in prayer, we integrate our lives with his, with what he is doing in us. Our lives become more coherent. They feel calmer, more ordered, even in the midst of confusion and pressure.

Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life (NavPress, 2009)

I feel both a longing and a conviction when I read this. I deeply crave this life of inner quiet. But I recognize in myself the misguided pursuit of external calm. I can use all the focus apps I want do yoga in the middle of the afternoon but still feel frazzled and worried and bitter toward people who (as I see it) demand my attention. Quietness of soul is not about tools or resources, though those can help. Miller concludes his book with a section on prayer tools, and he acknowledges the importance of having a literally quiet place to pray (though he never says that’s the only appropriate environment for prayer). Quietness of soul, though, comes from acknowledging my need for the Lord from the outset—not waiting until my day is falling apart around me, but even when I wake up feeling pretty smart and together (which sometimes happens).

I’ll conclude with a quote from Emily P. Freeman that nicely sums up what Miller wrote and what I am contemplating these days. (This quote is from the show notes of an episode of her podcast, The Next Right Thing: https://emilypfreeman.com/podcast/the-next-right-thing/59/)

Just like any ordinary practice can be a spiritual discipline if it brings us into the presence of God, so can any ordinary place be a sanctuary if we will to see it so.

Cultivating quietness in our lives is less about our stage of life and more about our state of mind. You can be busy and soulful at the same time. The key is in paying attention.

what historical fiction readers really want

Last week’s post on the challenges of writing historical fiction garnered more copious feedback than my posts typically do, including a book recommendation from my uncle; some thoughts on the benefits and challenges of research from my former student Kandy Crosby-Hastings, a historical fiction writer herself (read her savvy observations in the comments to last week’s post), and some comments from my dad, which I’ll return to shortly. I also received a nuanced response and respectful critique from another former student and my occasional Twitter interlocutor (occasional because I’m really bad at Twitter), @Andy__Ford, and it is his epic series of ten tweets that I would like to spend most of my post engaging with today. And that’s because I realized, after reading his comments, that my previous post presented an unfairly generalized portrayal of historical fiction readers. Today, I’d like to complicate that portrayal a bit.

My post last week was directed toward historical fiction writers, not readers. I was also trying to be amusing, which sometimes gets me into trouble. I was also trying to keep my post relatively short. So I fell back on the bogeyman story that I tell the students in my creative writing research class: If you don’t do your research, those cranky historical fiction fans will find all your mistakes and eat you alive in a public forum!!! Although it supports the basic premise of my course—research is important—this story is based on a caricature, and like all caricatures, it is rather unkind. Here is Andy’s response: “I don’t think those Goodreads trolls actually exist, and if they do, they’re probably in the minority….As a reader I am happy to suspend my disbelief so I can enjoy a story, and I think most readers are like that.” In other words, historical fiction fans aren’t waiting to pounce on writers for committing an anachronism; they just want to enjoy a well-told story like readers of any genre do. My conversation with my dad reinforced this point: he sent me a really bad review that he gave a book classified as historical fiction. But he criticized the book for bad writing, not for historical inaccuracy, and so he applied the same standards that he would to any book. As Andy said in another of his tweets, “I don’t think the details matter as much as the feeling”–the feeling, that is, of what it must have been like to live in the world where the story is set.

While writing this post, I remembered something. Last week, I claimed that I had never written historical fiction except for a Civil War story I handwrote in elementary school. But just now, I remembered the short story called “Dinner Party, 1885” that I wrote at the end of the summer between the two years of my master’s program. I had spent the summer maxing out my check-out limit at my university’s interlibrary loan department, reading everything I could get my hands on from and about the Victorian period, including a number of 19th-century health and hygiene manuals, which related directly to the topic of the thesis I was about to start writing. By the end of the summer, I felt like I was a Victorian, and so that short story flowed out of me in a way that no piece of writing has since then (certainly not these blog posts!). I was proud of that story, and it ended up being published in my university’s literary magazine. (P.S. A long shot–If anyone still has that issue of Lamp, could you scan a copy for me? I don’t have the story anymore.) But here’s the key: I don’t think I spent much if any time looking up details like what the exact cut of my protagonist’s waistcoat would likely have been. I wrote the story from the feeling I got from reading all those books, from immersing myself in the period. Yes, if I were to expand that story into a book and/or try to market it to a wider audience, I would probably do some fact-checking. But that would be an afterthought, not the heart of the story. And so we return to the point I made at the end of my last post: no amount of accuracy can make up for a bad story with stilted characters.

I hope I’ve done some greater justice to historical fiction writers and readers this time around. Keep the comments coming!

 

the challenges of historical fiction

I had fun last week interviewing Jordan! Thanks for the questions you submitted and the great feedback you gave me afterwards. If you send more questions, I’d be happy to do a part two (and Jordan will do it whether he’s happy about it or not), so if there’s anything else you want to know about Jordan, please let me know in the comments below or via your favorite method of getting in touch with me.

This week’s topic was suggested by reader Robert Stiles, a prolific writer and a YouTuber at Channel Legendarium, where he explores a variety of historical, literary, and mythological topics. Robert, who’s been doing some research for a new historical fiction work, suggested that I write about the challenges historical fiction writers face. He said, “Stanley Kubrick noted that you have to inform your audience about the period enough to get the story, while still telling a story first and foremost.” (By the way, Robert, if you know the source of that statement, could you let me know? I didn’t come across it in my highly detailed [not] research, which consisted of googling “Stanley Kubrick historical fiction.”)

Although my enjoyment of historical fiction goes all the way back to my early elementary school years, when I had the American Girls catalog memorized, I have never attempted writing in this genre myself. (Exception: A short story called “The Considerate General” that I hand-wrote around third grade, at the peak of my childhood Civil War obsession.) In fact, you probably couldn’t pay me to touch it. There’s no way I’m opening myself up to the criticism of fans who really know their medieval weapons or Regency fashions and who won’t hesitate to call out a mistake on Goodreads. Astute readers of historical fiction can catch anachronisms much more subtle than the standard example I give my students–a cell phone in a Shakespeare play. Here’s the thing: I don’t have the discipline to do the research it would take to write a quality work of historical fiction. But I do teach a class on research for creative writing, and I’ve found (well, I knew this before developing the class, but the class has confirmed it) that historical fiction is probably the most research-heavy fictional genre, with only sci-fi giving it a run for its money.

Brief digression: This is not to say that other genres don’t require research. The whole point of my class is that creative writing never just comes out of the writer’s head. For Sam’s Town, a contemporary novel about an improbable event that nobody, to date, can fact-check (the zombie apocalypse), I still had to do research on everything from broken legs to the Ohio Turnpike. I also wanted my novel to fit into one specific strain of zombie apocalypse lore, so I had to research the rules of that body of lore.

So one of the risks of writing historical fiction is that you won’t do enough research and your readers will expose you as a screwup. (I’m only slightly exaggerating.) But the equal and opposite risk is that you’ll get so bogged down in your research and your world-building (what would you call this in historical fiction? world-recreating? world-evoking?) that you’ll forget you’re actually writing a story. I see this often with my students in the class I mentioned, especially those who choose to write historical and science fiction (or both–I currently have a student who’s researching for a project that involves both time travel and the Black Death). Their proposals are full of excitement about the research they’re going to do, but when I ask them what’s going to happen in the story, they’re at a loss. Or they end up turning in a thinly-veiled research paper, in which all the dialogue consists of characters reporting the author’s findings. I hope this doesn’t come across as mean-spirited toward my students; they have only four weeks to pull off the daunting task I’m asking them to do. And many of them do it quite well. But that risk is always there.

If you’ve written historical fiction, what were some of the challenges you faced? Next week, I might look at this topic from a reader’s perspective, so if you’re a reader of historical fiction, let me know some of your favorite books and authors, as well as some of your pet peeves.

what I’m doing this week: making risotto, being student-centered, and still planning a wedding

This post should not be read as me tooting my own horn (“you should be just like me”) but rather as me sharing some things that I’m doing that may or may not work for you–after all, you may have even better ideas. Also, it’s an aspirational post for me, too; I mean, this is only Monday, and even in a normal week, my best-laid plans can turn into a mess of arrows bumping tasks down to later in the week on my planner page (some of which tasks will fall off the page entirely). So, with all that in mind, here are three things that (you are free to do as you like) am planning to do this week.

  1. Making risotto. This morning, I bought ingredients to make one of my favorite dishes, risotto. I know that not everyone loves cooking, but for me, it’s relaxing and a way for me to use totally different skills than the ones I use in my work. Also, there’s sometimes a temptation, when we are housebound or just generally in stressful situations, to throw basic nutrition guidelines out the window, but I think it’s important for us to continue to be at least mindful of what we’re eating and feeding those we love. I’m not saying risotto is the pinnacle of healthy eating, but it certainly is filling and nourishing, and I’m adding peas and shrimp to mine (thanks for the idea, Betty Crocker) for some green and protein. So, again, I’m not telling you what to do, but perhaps you’d like to use some of your time at home to prepare something special in the kitchen–even if it’s just toast with your favorite nut butter.
  2. Being student-centered. My university, like most, has moved on-campus classes online for the next three weeks. There’s been a lot of talk in higher ed circles about the best way to ensure students are still getting both the rigor and the support of a traditional classroom setting. I’ve chosen to make things relatively easy for myself by using the same format–loosely based on a typical asynchronous* online course–for all three of my on-campus classes. But the really important thing, I think, is that I’m trying to be present for and supportive of my students–answering their emails promptly and encouragingly, commenting on their discussion boards here and there, etc. For me, one of the most crucial (and enjoyable) parts of teaching has always been letting my students know I’m a real person (hence the many times I “accidentally” display my desktop, which features a cute picture of me and my fiance, on the screen in the front of the classroom) and letting them know that I care about them as real people. This can be harder in an online environment, but it’s worth the effort, especially in times when students are facing even more anxiety than usual. So, if you’re looking for takeaways (again, it’s okay if you’re not), here are two: a. Keep doing your best work, even if it looks different than it did last week, and b. Make sure the people you care about know that you care.
  3. Still planning a wedding. So, speaking of my cute fiance…we are planning to get married on May 24. As of now, that’s far enough in the future that we may as well keep planning as if everything’s going forward as normal. When we get closer to the date, we may have to make some difficult decisions, just like couples with March wedding dates are having to make right now. (My heart goes out to them.) But today, I’m working on booking a salon so my bridesmaids and I can get our hair done, because right now, I’m still fully intending to have a wedding on May 24. The takeaway here is that we can’t know what the future is going to look like. We never can; this virus has simply highlighted that truth for us in a particularly poignant way. Not knowing the future is frightening, but acting like we know it usually only leads to despair. As Gandalf once said, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends…and that is an encouraging thought.”

*a fancy word that means “not conducted in real time”

Emma (2020)–not “badly done”

Last week, I went to see the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde. For a few years now, I have regarded Emma as my favorite Jane Austen novel. Arguably, it’s the funniest and has the most dynamic protagonist, and I like the coziness of it, the fact that it all takes place in one small community and is essentially about neighbors taking care of each other. (While most of Austen’s novels are set in similarly close-knit worlds, usually someone travels somewhere–to Bath, the beach, or London, say–and nothing like that happens in Emma except outside the narrative.) Also, despite the fact that he can be read as bossy and condescending (as in the line I quoted in my post title), I really like Mr. Knightley because he says what he means (unlike certain other secretive and brooding male leads in Austen’s novels) and seems to genuinely respect and care about his neighbors who are less fortunate than he is–which is, basically, everyone.

Until now, my favorite Emma adaptation has been Clueless, but I may have to update my ranking after seeing the new movie. In some respects, such as its lush, Oscar-hopeful costumes, it was a typical period piece; in many others, though, it was a surprise. For example, I really enjoyed all the traditional vocal music incorporated into the film, both diegetic* (like when Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax sing and play “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes”) and extra-diegetic, like the rousing rendition of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation” that played whenever someone visited Robert Martin’s farm–an odd choice, but in keeping with Martin’s steady nature.

The amount and silliness of the humor in the film also buck the staid tradition of BBC Austen adaptations and, actually, align this Emma a lot more with Clueless than with its Regency-era predecessors. But I never thought the humor was unkind or mocking, except insofar as certain self-important characters, like Mr. Elton, totally deserve to be mocked. (It would be ironic if the humor in the film were mean, since one of the main lessons Emma learns is not to be mean in her humor.) And possibly my favorite thing about the movie was how sincere and unabashed everyone’s emotions seemed. In the climactic proposal scene, both Emma and Mr. Knightley were visibly crying.

Some things about this Emma (e.g. the Wes Anderson-looking sets, as well as a couple of naked butts) are going to anger some of those people who act like the Masterpiece Theater versions of Austen are the Bible, but I don’t think there’s much, if anything, about this adaptation that Austen herself would quibble with. It made me laugh and warmed my soul, and I recommend it with a full heart.

*a fancy word I learned in a film class that refers to music that is part of the story–i.e. the characters can hear it.

 

 

Sam’s Town revisited

This past weekend, I received another royalty payment (which I know is a crass and demeaning topic that true artists are supposed to avoid [kidding!]) for my novel, Sam’s Town, so I want to take a moment to thank everyone who has purchased, read, reviewed, or recommended it. As Mac Barnett and Adam Rex’s recent picture book How This Book Was Made reminds us, a book really isn’t finished until it has readers. So thank you for making my book a real book!

In case you missed basically all of my posts last fall, in October I self-published (via Kindle Direct Publishing) my zombie apocalypse novel Sam’s Town, which has a title borrowed from a Killers album and fantastic cover art by Mike Nair. It’s more about relationships than about zombies, but fans of George Romero and The Walking Dead should find it satisfying. You can read more about it here and in most of my September and October posts. It’s available in paperback and e-book formats; the shopping link is in the post above. If you have questions, let me know in the comments!

one of my periodic existential crises

This afternoon, a colleague who edits a theological journal came to my office and invited me to contribute an article to an upcoming issue on theology and literature. He assured me that I wouldn’t need to write an entirely new piece but could update something I wrote, say, during my doctoral studies. Knowing my love for Harry Potter, he said that a piece on the series would be enthusiastically welcomed. I said I’d be happy to contribute, and the conversation left me feeling honored and excited.

Now, a few hours later, I’m feeling more worried than anything else, for two main reasons. One has to do with the fact that I produced the bulk of my academic writing before cloud storage existed, or at least before I was using it regularly. I have a few PhD. papers in my Dropbox, as well as my dissertation (which–shameless plug–you can read on ProQuest), but the only academic work I still have from my master’s and bachelor’s programs are my respective theses, which are also accessible through library databases. One might correctly argue that most of what I wrote during those first two degree programs is not worth resurrecting, but I can think of a few papers from those years that, with some revision, would fit well with the theme of the journal issue–such as the first paper I ever presented at a conference (in 2008, during my master’s program), which connected Dorothy Sayers’ analogy of the Trinity with the author-character relationship in the film Stranger Than Fiction. This paper, which actually made a lot of sense, exists now only as a line on my CV.

My other, bigger concern has to do with the imposter syndrome I regularly experience, which leads me to believe that I’ve lost the ability to write. I realize the irony of expressing this fear in a blog post, but I worry specifically that I’ve lost the ability to write academically. A few weeks ago, while organizing the files in my Dropbox, I made a folder called “things I’ve written,” and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of written and oral contributions I’ve been able to make in the almost five years since I finished my doctorate–a short reflective essay published in Collegial Exchange (a publication of the professional organization for women educators, Delta Kappa Gamma), two lectures given at meetings of the local creative writing group I belonged to in Virginia, a short story written for my current employer’s annual magazine. I’m proud of these, but not one of them was scholarly in nature. I did present at an academic conference last year, but even that paper was a humor-laced analysis of the character of Loki in the Marvel movies, skimpy on sources and not rigorous enough for publication in a journal.

So I’m nervous. I haven’t written anything truly scholarly since my dissertation. Perhaps I can comb through said dissertation for segments that I might be able to expand into a journal article, but the problem is that there’s no obvious connection to theology or faith in my dissertation. There’s kind of a sideways connection, which I mention in the introduction, but I’m not sure if it would make sense as an article outside the context of the full study.

Underneath this nervousness, though, I still have to admit I’m a little bit excited. This will give me an excuse to go back and read at least parts of my dissertation and see if I still think they’re good. I have a feeling that there’s something there that might work for this assignment. The ideas are vague and formless, but watching an idea take shape was always my favorite part of writing for school. I’m ready to get started.

long stories

I’ve been listening lately to Ann Bogel’s podcast What Should I Read Next?. I have to admit that this show is not at the top of my to-listen list, and that’s because it stresses me out a little, for the simple reason that the question that Bogel says “plagues every reader”–what should I read next?–does not plague me. Setting aside my purely aspirational Want to Read list on Goodreads, I have a list of books that I already own and haven’t read yet, and it’s still quite long despite the fact that I’ve been systematically attacking it since fall 2018 (when I realized it was a problem). So the podcast just gives me a bunch of titles of books that I’ll probably never read. Nevertheless, I get some pleasure out of hearing people chat about books, even ones that I’ll never read, so I keep this podcast in my rotation. If you’ve listened to the show, you know that Bogel asks each guest to name three books they love, one book that didn’t work for them, and a book they’ve been reading recently. So naturally, I’ve been thinking about which books I would name if I were a guest. The first two of the three books I love are easy: Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (if she forced me to choose one, I’d go with Prisoner of Azkaban, the one that really made me fall in love with the series). I’m still mulling over what I’d choose for my third book (it feels like a high-stakes decision), but in the meantime, I’ve been thinking about what makes me love a book.

I thought about this last night after I got out of the bathtub, where I had spent a relaxing half-hour reading one of my Christmas gifts from my sweet book-loving fiance: The Well of Ascension, the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. I am now about halfway through the book, which means I’m about halfway through the series, and it just struck me last night how much I am enjoying these books (though I don’t know if I’d use the word “love” yet. For the books, I mean. I love my fiance.). I realized that I am looking forward to long periods of time when I can sit down and read The Well of Ascension, that I can picture the setting vividly even when I’m not reading, and that I really care what happens to the characters. I know part of the reason why I’m just now getting into the story is that there were too many blow-by-blow (literally) action sequences in the first book–and I understand why this might be necessary for the first book of a fantasy series that involves a specific, unique type of magic. But I really don’t care who punched whom and when. This second book is much more about relationships, political intrigue, and human psychology. But I think another reason why I’m so into this book is that it’s long.

Well, not just long. Quantity does not supersede quality for me. But I’ve realized that I love books (and movies and TV series) that have extensive world-building, deep character development, and layered plots–and on top of all this, a sense that the story-world has been lived in, not just made up on the fly. And in order for all that to work, a writer needs space–hence, length. Most of my favorite stories–stories you’ve seen me write about on this blog–have these qualities: Downton Abbey (with its hour-long, commercial-free episodes), the Godfather films (a major time commitment I embark on only about once every other year), the novels of Charles Dickens (it’s no accident that one of Dickens’ shortest novels, Hard Times, is probably my least favorite). [I have written on this blog about Dickens’ “teeming world,” crowded with memorable people.] One of the greatest compliments I can give a story is that I’ve spent so much time inside it that I feel like the characters are my family. That’s why I cried so much when Sibyl died in season three of Downton Abbey, why the birthday party scene at the end of The Godfather Part 2 blows my mind every time I watch it, and why I’ve written fan fiction about the Weasleys going about their mundane lives after the defeat of Voldemort. However flawed they are, I want to be part of those families. I don’t know if Sanderson’s ad hoc family of thieves and kings will make it into my top tier of favorites, but their admission to that circle currently looks promising.