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October 27, 2014

By Alison Nissen


I am often overwhelmed by my own credentials. They aren’t really that impressive, but I fret, nonetheless.

I would review the literary canon at my collegiate library and think: Wow, how am I supposed to read ALL of that? Then I would take, from the shelves, classics. I would hold them, open them, smell them. I would rub their worn leaves between my fingers, caressing the pulpy paper. The musty scent of the stacks would engulf me and I would spend the next hour perusing Hawthorne, Hemmingway, or Homer. I’d review the Forward. I’d test the weight. I’d read the first and last lines. Then, I’d put it back.

I would wander back to my dorm and hunker down for a night with Fanny Flagg or Robert Ludwig to keep me company.

Why? Because I didn’t really want to READ the classics. I just wanted to say that I’ve read them. (Shh, let’s just keep that a secret between you and me.)

That was 30 years ago. Today, once in a blue moon, I’ll open a classic but for the most part, I’m happy to take my own professorial advice: Read, read anything, just don’t stop reading.

So, I read New York Times Best Sellers and novels written by friends and book club recommendations and (especially) things my kids recommend—except World War Z. I don’t do Zombies.

That brings me to what I want to write. When I close my eyes, I envision a somber library with bookshelves filled with classics and me, the embodiment of classic: refined and dignified. Then I open my eyes and look around. I see layers of photographs and half-written essays and the morning’s coffee cup. I see journals of notes and magazines and piles of suspense or chick-lit novels.

Maybe Hemmingway set out to write a classic, but as a friend often reminds me, look how he turned out—a bottle of booze in one hand and a gun in the other.

The question then to ask yourself is, when you close your eyes and envision the novelist’s library, does it match what you really want to read? One thing is clear, mine doesn’t.

Writing the book you want to read, then is simple. Look around your space. Write for the person who sits in your chair. Me, I’m writing for the crazy mess of a mom who is more than happy to read cheap literature. Who are you writing for?

Alison Teichgraeber Nissen

Alison Nissen holds an MA in Literature from Norwich University and taught writing and literature at Houston Community College. She is also the Small Group Leader for FWA’s Lakeland Writers. She lives in Central Florida with her husband and has watched her four children blossom in to energetic adults.

Read Alison’s Tales from the Laundry Room at

  1. October 27, 2014 10:43 am

    I totally agree. I write the books I want to read.

  2. elissa field permalink
    October 27, 2014 11:02 am

    Lately, I’ve been fascinated by this gap in a writer’s reading/writing. I generally read literary-ish fiction — like, tend a little more toward the serious-ish books that have made long-lists for literary awards. And that’s what my writing reaches for. But. Growing up, I *loved* mystery. When I started writing, I fell in love with journalism and my first jobs were working in the courts, with a stint sorting autopsy photos for the state’s attorney. I thought I didn’t love history, but in truth, I love the mystery of it — the feeling of slipping into a lost space to solve what is no longer remembered. I think it is fascinating, then, that I don’t intentionally read mysteries anymore, nor have I ever thought to write them. I would not have questioned this… but *have* come to wonder about it as I wrestle with awkward revisions, several years into working on another novel draft. It’s not that I don’t think it’s good or worthwhile, but I have moments of doubting why I wrestle to read/write literary when the elements of mystery that creep into the work is the part I love the most. I wonder if I might be faster to finish if I was writing toward that innate love. I don’t plant a flag to declare that I should read/write in one way or another, but do think expressing these thoughts is like opening a gate that lets you know you are free to move into a different format if it drew you.

    Thanks for sharing your post!

  3. November 3, 2014 3:49 pm

    Reblogged this on Lakeland Writers.

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