Reading Stuff to Fill Your Personal Void

by Susan Tepper

Ever notice the kinds of stories people tend toward?   After a while you can almost fit a story to a person.  You could line people up and make it into a game show:  “Name That Story.”  What I’m saying, specifically, is that we tend to read things that match us, or fill the void in our lives, or in some way mirror our personal problems.  It seems to be the problems aspect that dominates our choice of story.  I’ve seen friends who are in relationship trouble just ooh and aah over stories that were sad like their own lives were sad.  It’s a response thing.  We’re like little rats in the Skinner Box.  We are stimulated to like or dislike through our specific neuroses and narcissistic tendencies.  A woman I know who has been cheated on by a spouse “likes” all sorts of stories where people are being treated even worse than she is.   It must bolster her spirit to know she isn’t alone in her misery.   Just get away from him, I’d like to be able to say.  Of course I can’t.  And she reads on.   There’s a guy I know who’s a serial cheater and is drawn to stories of great undying love.  A thing that he, as a serial cheater, will never have for very long.  It’s all quite interesting.   I did an experiment on myself.  I re-read stories that I initially despised, or that bored me, or that I thought just stank.  And in some cases during the second reading, the story took on a positive new light.  Some of them actually mesmerized me and had a glow.  How can this be? I thought.  You hated that story.  What is happening?  Is your taste slipping?  It was like when I studied Interior Design.  One of our teachers told us to never look at anything ugly for very long.  Notice it and move on, he said.  He said that if you look at it consistently, say in a showroom window, every day as you get off the subway, that after a while it will seem less ugly.  Then bit by bit it will start to grow on you.  And you will have creamed your taste.  And what is worse than an Interior Designer with creamed taste?  Nothing.  It’s a career-killer.  So when I read over the old stories, and started to like some, and some a lot, I had to stop and mull this over.  And I realized that the ones I now liked had somehow worked on me like a form of therapy, or cocktails, or some magic mushroom.  They created a distorted false reality.  But one which I obviously needed.  The stupid story about the wise-cracking tough gal, that initially seemed cliché, suddenly took on a strength and power I hadn’t noticed on first reading.  Of course on the second reading I was feeling terribly vulnerable, and it had been snowing for weeks, and I didn’t have a lot of new work being published, and my back had gone out, and I couldn’t find an agent for my third book. And my place was so dusty.  So this tough gal was just what I needed to buck me up.  I just adored her gum-chewing, ass-scratching tough girl toughness.  I tried it out on my husband.  I lowered my voice and cracked my gum.  What the hell is wrong with you? he said.  Well that immediately reduced me to tears.  Then I thought of the tough gal and I bucked up a bit.  If I were single, I could dress up and go out and look for some guy to make me feel gorgeous and all that.  I’m married.  I have to make due with what I’ve got.  So I go to the books and get my little fantasy jolt from the heroines who are doing just fine, thanks.   Of course as soon as the weather turned nice, they seemed like jerks again.  And I threw them aside without so much as a backward glance.  Thank god.  Because like the Interior Design guy said:  You don’t want to cream your taste.  It’s a career-killer.

Susan Tepper has published 3 books. Her latest is a novel collaboration with Gary Percesepe titled “What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G”.

Susan Tepper was gracious enough to give my blog some lovely reading fodder. While I enjoy her fiction stories, this op-ed piece was a nice change and a welcome addition. Thank you, Susan!

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  • Reply

    Harley May

    June 8, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    This is great and I adore your stint with the tough girl, Susan.

    There’s one line I read over and over again, which reinforces the theory that people lean in one direction according to their life. I won’t share what it was – that would point out where I’m vulnerable.

    That’s another thing about reading and relating: no one has to know who it is you relate to. It’s all in your head. Your own fantasy.

    Great post. Thanks, ladies.

    • Reply

      susan tepper

      June 8, 2011 at 10:10 pm

      Harley, so great to hear from you and that you enjoyed this piece! It was a blast to write, and I’m still considering the game show idea! Will contact you if I get that started up!

  • Reply

    Bill Yarrow

    June 8, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    This is a very good piece, Susan. I really enjoyed it.

    “I did an experiment on myself. I re-read stories that I initially despised, or that bored me, or that I thought just stank. And in some cases during the second reading, the story took on a positive new light. Some of them actually mesmerized me and had a glow. How can this be? I thought. You hated that story. What is happening? Is your taste slipping?”

    Not so easy to answer. So important for writers!

    “creamed taste”–start a Fictionaut Forum on this idea!

    • Reply

      susan tepper

      June 9, 2011 at 12:13 am

      Bill, thank you so much! I’ll never forget the Interior Design guy wagging his finger at all us wannabees! The things that get stuck in our minds! Like a character in a G.B. Shaw play says: (I paraphrase) My mind sops up dirty water as well as clean…

      • Reply

        estelle bruno

        June 9, 2011 at 1:06 pm

        your story is fabulous. I now am re thinking stories I started and could’nt get thru to finish them. Will try again.

  • Reply

    Robert Vaughan

    June 9, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    I love this piece, Susan, and your candor and self-exploration as well as identifying some characteristics that most readers might be unaware even exist. Love your mind! And, of course, now I have to look for that loop of “themes that I explore more than others,” or as Estelle suggests, the stories I began and thought “UGH!” Then put the book down. Thanks for the juicy insights, Susan and for letting her blog, Jules!

    • Reply

      susan tepper

      June 9, 2011 at 3:44 pm

      Hi Robert! So glad you enjoyed this. I was going to add a little something about your upcoming “Evita in the Newd” which I assume most modest people will not attend! ha ha! Couldn’t resist. I love humor and am a total ass at times. I was weaned on Jerry Lewis and he still cracks me up. But anyway, to get back to “story”, yes, this was a blast to write and every word is true (almost)…

      • Reply

        susan tepper

        June 9, 2011 at 3:47 pm

        Reply to Ms. E~ so glad you enjoyed this piece! You read far more than I do, and your reading tastes are far more eclectic and democratic than mine. Right now I’m reading William Trevor who never tires me, or bores me, but just takes me into a mindset that is extraordinary. He’s my “ultimate” for fiction. He always uncovers the truth.

  • Reply


    September 10, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    “We tend to read things that match us, or fill the void in our lives, or in some way mirror our personal problems.”

    Very interesting reflections and will look out for that now. I definitely see there has to be a resonance between the reader and stories for them to work, and maybe that has to do with personal history or current circumstances.

  • Reply


    September 11, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Interesting, Susan.

    Are you familiar with Jung’s theory of the shadow?

    I am a very slow thinker but I fantasize about racing drivers. I think they rely totally on their senses. The point where they and I meet is a very creative and sensual one.

    Not sure I’d want to read a novel by a racing driver though.

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