The Pleasure of the Well-Worn Groove

It’s important for writers – for artists of all sorts – to expose ourselves to the new. We should be reading the latest novel that has everyone buzzing; check out that hot, well-reviewed HBO series; go to see the latest band or art installation that has all the critics purring. I recognize this need, and I also recognize that my free time – indeed, my time on this earth – is finite.

Why, then, do I have a tendency to reread the same beloved books, rewatch the same favorite series, listen to the same albums – sometimes, the same song – over and over again? And tendency is putting it mildly. Sometimes I really have to force myself to sample anything new when it comes to the arts. If I love it, that book or film or band will become part of my hit parade on infinite repeat. If I don’t, it becomes a cautionary tale of disappointment.

There’s a punch line in an episode of the series Gilmore Girls – one of my TV obsessions – about the main character, Lorelai, having had a bad reaction to the film Magnolia. Her daughter Rory says, “She sat there for three hours screaming, ‘I want my life back!’”

That’s kinda me (except I liked Magnolia). When I spend time on art that deeply disappoints, I feel cheated and resentful. And the only antidote to something I find deeply disappointing is to slip into something I know I love.

In terms of books, I tend to revisit any novel I adore on first read to learn from it in terms of craft. But that doesn’t explain a third or fourth or, in a rare few cases, a fifth read. For books like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, there is always something new to absorb from the text, but I also reread beloved novels because entering their worlds feels like slipping between cool sheets on a hot summer night. I reread the Lorrie Moore short story How to Become a Writer about once a year – not because I expect to pick up anything new from the story on my twenty-ninth read, but because my relationship to the story has changed over time. It spoke directly to me and for me when I was a fledgling writer in my early twenties; now, it’s like dropping in for a visit with my young self.

I started thinking about all this after running through the entire Sopranos series for the third time, and then, instead of trying something new, shifting to Season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This was probably my fourth time running through that season, and yet, like with The Sopranos, I still found new things to marvel at in the writing. Having recently published a novel that deals with grief, and working on a new one that also addresses loss, I marveled at the triumph of the Buffy episode called “The Body.” It brought to mind Jim Crace’s brilliant novel Being Dead in terms of how it dealt with the physical manifestations of death, while handling the emotional aspects with an appreciation of both the largeness and smallness of grief – that huge, all-encompassing despair mixed with the thousands of small quirks and petty concerns individual humans manifest while dealing with such pain.

But my worst habit of revisiting that which I love is in the musical realm. I have listened to certain albums so many times – Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction, Arcade Fire’s Funeral – that I can play them in my head, no other equipment required. I routinely check out new music, but for an album to become one I can’t stop myself from listening to repeatedly – well, only a few do.

I have friends who, when they recommend a film or series to me that I haven’t yet seen, say they wish they could go back and re-experience it anew. I never feel that way. Perhaps this is a result of my own peculiar emotional makeup, but it’s on the subsequent readings, viewings, listenings that I can really relax into the work, picking up the subtleties, delighting in the triumphs. Until I hit the end of the novel, until the credits roll, until that last note is played, I’m holding my breath – hoping that, when it’s all over, I won’t jump up and scream, “I want my life back!”

And how about you, dear readers? Are you mostly looking to experience something new, or do you, like me, have a tendency to revisit your most beloved works?

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About the Author

Lisa Borders’ second novel, The Fifty-First State, was published by Engine Books in 2013. Her first novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, was chosen by Pat Conroy as the winner of River City Publishing’s Fred Bonnie Award and received fiction honors in the 2003 Massachusetts Book Awards. Lisa has published humor in McSweeney’s, essays in The Rumpus and several anthologies, and short stories in Washington SquareBlack Warrior ReviewPainted Bride Quarterly and other journals. She has taught creative writing since 1997, shifting her focus to the novel when she developed GrubStreet’s Novel in Progress courses in 2005. She also co-developed and co-taught GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator from 2011 – 2013, and developed and led the Novel Generator from 2014-2017. She now teaches in the University of Arkansas at Monticello’s online MFA program. For more information on Lisa and her work, visit lisaborders.com.

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