Lee (far right, with Faith, center), Actively Engaged in Not-Reading, on a Towel-Draped Camel.
Pyramids of Giza, Egypt, 2004
"When writing a story it is a good thing to read good stories. Good reading and good writing go together."
--Seepersad Naipaul, in a letter to his son V. S. Naipaul, 1950. Quoted on Sister's blog.
This is the received wisdom: if you want to write, read.
However, there is a limit to this practice. At some point, if you want to write in your own voice you need to forget all the other voices you've read.
One way to do that is to stop reading.
Lee and I recently e-mailed about this.
It started because he'd sent me the link to a friend's blog. This friend wants to write (novels), but doesn't. I read some of the friend's blog, and it launched this exchange between me and Lee:
Well! No wonder your friend doesn't write!
I just glanced at his blog and see he's reading all of Nabokov. If you sit around reading Nabokov
#1 you will be too busy to write
#2 you will be too disheartened by his excellence to write
I recently read a brief essay by Susan Sontag, and she mentions that she spent a year alone in a little room in Paris, NOT reading!!!
She was trying to detox herself of other people's words, I gather, so she could better write her own.
The only time I went entirely without the printed word was 5 weeks walking across Spain with nothing in English anywhere.
Like an addict going through withdrawal, at one point I read the Spanish newspaper, even though I don't know Spanish. I just needed to ingest print!
Sontag's year off reading so intrigues and attracts me--and then I realize I have been doing it more or less naturally. I'm baffled to note it, but I really don't read much anymore--very few books anyway, and almost never novels.
Probably more importantly, I'm not writing geography books to form anymore.
I do still find myself inserting definitions and birth/death dates and otherwise still following nonfiction-writing-for-teens rules.
But my writing is starting to be my own more than it ever has been.
Maybe I should ramp up my non-reading.
And Lee responded:
That is a very good way to put it!
Sometimes the words and expectations and written mental/verbal presences of others have a toxic effect on our own creativity and powers of flow.
Like Emerson said, reading shouldn't be habitual or reflexive, but primarily to "get your own team going."
Your business is YOUR expression, not that of others!!!
I'm sure I read less than I used to as well. It's a little hard to justify when there're so many things I can be writing and saying for myself. And a lot of it's just facts I will forget (though hopefully I retain the basic ideas and any important principles).
"Maybe I should ramp up my nonreading."
You are probably the only person I know (besides myself) who could say that! Most people are discomfited by the number of things they DON'T know and HAVEN'T read.
I've long thought this was crazy.
It's so much more important to know, say, ten things or books or "great" figures or ideas deeply than a hundred or more shallowly.
Just like it's better to have three really great friends than thirty acquaintances; or one really awesome sexual experience with another than twenty mediocre auto-erotic ones.
Or... oh, you get the idea. I could go on forever.
I've often fantasized about living in some remote place with just five or ten books, like Shakespeare and the Bible and a few others. Then insofar as I'm reading, read read read read those.
Write write write write write.
People need more self-trust.
Do we REALLY need all these hangers-on?
Why this idealization of being eternal schoolboys and schoolgirls?
What, exactly, are we studying for?
When's the big test?
Isn't the big test writing, saying, doing your own thing?