Thursday, February 26, 2009

Who's Your Broccoli Writer?

I joined a writer's group that met in the back room of a gloomy café about five years ago. We gathered every week, carefully critiquing each other's pages late into the night. Often the café closed before we were done, giving me a chance to hear the barista, a tough-looking guy with tattoos and piercings, belt out superb renditions of Limp Bizkit songs.

The group was lead by two gray-haired writers named Rino and Mike. On several occasions, they would both tell me I needed to read more Proust. They did not tell anyone else this. Just me. In a comment that I took as a compliment then, but which I don't take as a compliment now, they told me I was trying to do what Proust did.

So, I tried to read Proust.

For those of you who don't know, Marcel Proust was a French writer who published in the early 1900's. Many critics consider him the best novelist of all time. His epic, translated as In Search Of Lost Time, is roughly 3,200 pages long with about 2000 characters in it. He published it in seven volumes, the first of which is titled "Swann's Way".

So, I got "Swann's Way" from the library. I read about a hundred pages of it, almost all of which were about a young boy not wanting to go to sleep. I thought, "That's a lot of words to spend on a young boy not going to sleep." I gave up.

A little later, another teacher of mine read the novel I was working on and told me to read Proust. I gave it another try. I got to about page 200, when the boy had finished discussing his sleeping habits and was now taking a walk around the neighborhood. I gave up.

I got a job after finishing graduate school and ended up having a commute that took longer than an hour. This was my chance! I got a copy of "Swann's Way" on audio. I played it during my drive. I was reminded of the sleeping and the walking. I went back to radio after about a week.

I read other books, many books, and my writing was improving, but I always had this nagging feeling that I should get back to Proust. Finally, I had the chance to come and live in Paris for six months -- that's where I currently am now. So, I tried Proust again, and this time...I thought it was okay.

I can definitely admire the guy. The book is funny at times and I did laugh out loud on several occasions. But, I read all of "Swann's Way" and came out of it thinking, "This guy's good, but he's no Tolstoy."

I went back to my writing. That's when I noticed something. Without my permission, Proust had changed my writer's voice. Instead of my usual depressed, clichéd work, I was noticing things in my story I had never noticed before. I was describing scenes more accurately, taking the time to be clear instead of reaching for the easiest summarizing detail I could come up with. My characters were more multidimensional: they were silly and serious and mad and paranoid. I even tried to be funny, something I never dared to do before. What was going on?

I realize now that I had stumbled upon my Broccoli Writer. Proust was the guy that I needed to read, not for pleasure, but for my writer's health. Though I didn't particularly like him -- and to be fair, I did like him a little -- reading Proust drastically improved my writing in a matter of weeks. I feel like I have a unique voice now that I didn't have before. And, I owe it to Proust and my mentors who encouraged me to read him.

So, who are your Broccoli Writers? Who are those authors who manage to help you see yourself more clearly and help you to improve your writing, even if you don't like them?


  1. I don't have a broccoli writer... yet.

    Though I have started flipping through the books on my shelves "studying" them. Before I only read for pleasure, paying no attention to the way writers described things or structured senteces. It's only been since I started writing seriously that I actually looked for these details.

    Analogy time! I used to enjoy the song just for it's greatness, as a complete whole. Now I'm looking at the chords, the notes, the interplay between instruments.

    But still no brocolli writer...

    Do you think you would have found Proust had others not suggested him to you?

  2. That's a really interesting question, Anette. I actually think about that a lot. I really like Tolstoy. Have I mentioned that??? I also really like Virginia Woolf (and it's totally cool that you don't). Well, in my research, I realized that Tolstoy inspired Proust who inspired Woolf, so I would hope that I eventually found the middle man even without my mentors. It's been really interesting to find out the circles of writers that are trying to do that same thing.

  3. Fascinating post. I think before I find my broccoli writer, I have to put aside fantasies of who I'd like it to be. The fact that yours isn't a writer you absolutely adore tells me I need to explore some more.

  4. That's funny, Geeky Quill. Don't get me wrong though, there are plenty of writers that I like that I also learn from. Have I mentioned how much I like Tolstoy? He just doesn't feel like broccoli to me. More like a six meal course with ice cream as dessert.

  5. Great post. I don't think I've found my broccoli writer yet. But I did recently (last year) realize that I was reading too much of the same type of books, so I ventured out in other genres. I fell in love with The Road, and I never thought I could fall for a literary piece. I do think to improve as a writer, I have to read lots of different genres. Hopefully I will find my broccoli writer that way.

  6. In the classical violin world, there's a guy named Sevcik who wrote a bunch of pedagogical studies that players either love or loathe. Most loathe them. "Here are 32 bars of dull music, and now here are 75 various bowings to apply to those 32 bars of dull music. Practice one variation a day. This exercise will take you three months. Have fun." Happily, a little bit of Mr. Sevcik's etudes go a long way, and time spent in his company is never wasted.

    Sometimes I have those "I need to read more of Writer X" moments, just to learn better how she did something. The ones I can think of recently are Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize-winning poet, and...well, I can't think of who else. Possibly Hemingway. I don't have much patience for or understanding of poetry, but I read Mr. Heaney for the way his imagery opens up the meaning of his language, as opposed to narrowing it into specificity. And I read Hemingway, I realize, for the opposite sort of effect, for focus and clarity. Neither of these fellows are my favorite writers.

    I read "Swann's Way" a couple years ago, and I like the way Proust lets thoughts lead into tangential ideas, like you're walking around in a cloud of stories. My friend Emma spent last summer reading all seven volumes of "Remembrances..." and, according to her summaries, Proust gets more focused and hilarious as the books progress. I doubt I'll ever find out on my own, though.

  7. All I know about Proust I learned from "Little Miss Sunshine."

    I have two very different writing styels. When I'm blogging, it's light-hearted and sometimes funny. The broccoli that nurtues this muse is Dave Barry.

    For my novel, it's a thriller, so my diet of Ken Follett, Harlan Coben, David Baldacci, Stephen King, James Patterson, et al provides motivation and insight on how to make the reader turn the next page.

  8. Cool post! Man, I wish I could find my broccoli writer! Honestly, I don't even know where to look. Though if I had a late night writer's group I would probably have more insight on what authors I should read.

  9. Sounds like something I could really use, but honestly I'd be afraid that if I did find my broccoli writer I wouldn't be able to learn from them what I needed to learn.

  10. Hmmm, interesting post, backstory and question. I need to think on this more. But I may have many Broccoli Writers because I'm a very picky reader and truly like only a little of what I've read.

    I also must look at Proust's work, as I focus on day-to-day descriptive motions in my fiction, but, apparently, mine's not anything near as long as some of Proust's. 3,200 pages long--yikes!

    So many written works, so little time to read them all....

  11. Crimogenic, I was feeling the same way. I got stuck in the classics and started reading other stuff like Water For Elephants and Harry Potter. It wasn't as satisfying, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be either. It's good to know what's out there.

    Scott, Poetry is a great example. I feel pretty ignorant when it comes to poetry, but there are a few that I like and I bet reading others would help me a great deal. I like your example about Sevcik. You know, even though it's a little rough, I love that there are things that make you better instantly. When I was doing some public readings a guy told me to practice with a cork in my mouth and it immediately made a difference.

    Rick, Little Miss Sunshine was a fantastic movie and presented Proust to a lot of people. I realize that I can't read too many books when I'm working on a draft of a story because they pull me in too many directions. So, I sometimes have a set of books I read for each story. That kind of sounds like what you are describing.

    Kat, based on your blog posts it seems like you are starting to get feedback on your writing, so hopefully people will start mentioning writers to you that can really influence you. Good reviewers will help you write in the way you want to write.

    Charlene! Thanks for commenting and coming by. The great thing about eating broccoli is that it does the work automatically! Even if you find that broccoli writer on accident, they will do their job and influence you without you having to do anything more than write.

    Reason Reanimator, Yes, for you, I really think you could like Proust. This is just based on your comments about writing for accuracy. When I read your post on that topic, Proust came to mind right away.

  12. Can I just say that I love this post? Seriously, it was awesome.

    As for my brocolli writers: I'd say CS Lewis and JK Rowling. A bit cliche, espcially considering I write MG fantasy. But CS Lewis taught me a book could have meaning, and a book for children could be more complicated than typical dribble. And JK Rowling taught me that I could be funny and serious at the same time. Lewis gave me plot, Rowling gave me voice.

  13. My local library has In Search Of Lost Time; I should be going there tomorrow so will take out the book. I'm so busy with my own writing right now, I probably won't be able to read anywhere near the whole. But your thoughtful writings on it made me curious. I feel like I must see some of this--NOW.

    Thanks for the recommendation, Davin, and keep writing!


  14. I'm writing a memoir and the latest one I felt a connection with is, "Petite Anglaise," by Catherine Sanderson. I lived in Paris for 14 years, growing up, and now I'm in Orange County, California. What are you doing in Paris? So glad I found you via Crimogenic.

  15. I had imagined it differently, a fade out rather than a death.

    Davin (I called you David before; apologies)...I just read your story. Loved it. Especially the line above. Now that's literary.

  16. Great post, by the way. Anne Taylor was recommended to me and while if I'm honest, I didn't love the book, I loved her writing. I'm not sure if it's the same thing you're talking about at all, likely isn't, but I could see flaws in my writing once I read hers.

  17. Gutsy Writer, Thanks so much for stopping by. I'll go to your blog too! I'm actually in Paris doing biophysical research. (The non-writing half of my life is lived in a laboratory. But, I'm originally from Southern California as well, and I'll be back there soon!)

    Spin Regina, it means so much to me that you would take the time to read one of my stories. Thank you so much! I'm glad you liked it. I think you've definitely found a broccoli writer. Was it Anne Taylor or Tyler? I think both writers exist. I think Tyler is a great writer, but like you I don't always love her work.

  18. I loved this post!
    I have actually been wanting to read Proust for a while now. I do have to admit that I also learned about him from Little Miss Sunshine, but I researched him more after seeing the film and actually used the Proust Questionnaire( to introduce our magazine staff in our first issue.
    I don't really have a broccoli writer yet. I do have, what I'll call, a dessert writer because I love him. Hemingway. Reading Hemingway has really helped me to simplify my writing while still leaving the crucial details.
    A Clean Well-Lighted Place is my favorite short story of his and it has influenced me a lot.
    And I'm jealous you're in Paris.

  19. Hi Caitlin, It's actually pretty cool that Little Miss Sunshine introduced Proust to the world. Hemingway really helped me too, especially when I first started writing because he made me see how powerful simplicity can be. I tend to stick to that rule even though I love a lot of writers who are more complicated and complex, like William Faulkner. I once heard this writing advice: Read all the Faulkner you can get your hands on, and when you're done read all the Hemingway to cleanse your mind again. I'm sure I totally messed up that quote, but you get the idea.

  20. Well, I really, really like broccoli, but that aside, my broccoli writer would have to be Annie Dillard. She doesn't write fiction, per se, but writes amazing philosophical works that center on nature and God. I love her writing, and I hate it at the same time. It makes my brain hurt, but her writing is so poignantly beautiful and clear that she is the one who inspired me back into writing fiction instead of technical writing.

    So glad you have discovered Proust! I haven't read very much of him. I think I gave up a few times, just like you did, and still haven't gone back... perhaps I should. :)

  21. Lady Glam, I was waiting for someone to say they like broccoli. I like it too. But, I figured I'd run into that problem with any vegetable. :P

  22. i would recommend that u all read 30 of john ashbery's books. lots of broccoli. he doesn't write about his past because, he says, he's already lived it, so why would he want to write about it? he wants his poems to be a new place for him to go. he has won the yale younger poets award, a national book award and a pulitizer, and he was friends with frank o'hara--so he must know what he is doing. the actual painting of the very cute, twinky guy in "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror" is cheese for the broccoli. trust me.


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