Sunday, May 25, 2008

On Nonreading

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.
I agree.

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.
I hope.
Maybe I should ramp up my non-reading.

Love, Fresca

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.
And write.
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?

Love, Lee


Anonymous said...

Like Stendhal, for years I wrote like the reader I was reading: Virginia Woolf, Gide, and on and on. Not that I was as good a writer but only that I was using their wings to fly on for awhile until my own voice emerged. I read ALL THE TIME....mostly through the night. I say read and write, your own voice always wins out because each of us has our own "style" and this is something that develops whether we read a lot or not. However, much of my writing was done because I did not own a TV. This is the killer, I think, not the reading of good books while writing yourself. Perhaps each of us finds our own unique way. I don't think there's a formula. I learned everything I know about writing through reading other people's books. Maybe it was because I never went to college and didn't have the slightest idea about sentence structure or grammar. I didn't care about it, I had to write, it was/is the only way I can make something/everything real. As the English writer William Gerhardie says: "The practice as a profession, however precarious, of the art in which one finds one's deepest fulfillment is a happiness -- in so far as the denial of it would be a misery."

Anonymous said...

Whoops! please read "writer" instead of "reader" the first sentence.

fresca said...

I totally agree with you Barrett when you say, "I don't think there's a formula" re how much to read.

I can't agree, however, that a person's "own voice always wins out because each of us has our own "style" "--
Rather, most writers use the voice/style of the era they live in to write about that era's concerns.

Nothing wrong with that--in fact, it's good!
It's like the currency of the realm--it works to exchange goods and ideas among the citizens.

But it's also insidious, like leafy spurge, and can takeover a writer's own voice.

In our era, I hear these themes/voices, among others:

1. self-revelation/exploration/healing in an Oprah-ish voice

2. personally involved, concerned reflection on large issues in an Ira Glass-ish NPR (Public Radio) voice

3. an urban, chic-flip, scatty voice, sort of David Sedaris + Bridget Jones

These styles--and there are others--are fun and smart and good, at their best.
I like many of them:
Martha Beck from Oprah has truly helped and greatly amused me.
I'm reading a collection of nonficiton essays edited by Ira Glass right now that makes my eyes pop.
And I adore Helen Fieldling!

But sometimes I hear myself speaking in those voices and known they have seeded themselves-- and I try and weed them out.
That's why I'm intrigued with the idea of not listening/reading to other voices for a while.

Anonymous said...

You're right. All I have to do is pick up a New York Times Review of Books and every single book review sounds like the same person wrote it. Their "style" makes me grind my teeth....all of them, soooo clever and flippant and sooo IN and so chiche that I can barely understand them. The attitude seems to me to be: "Hey! Look at me, aren't I the smartest most sophisticated and gifted writer you've ever read?" What I'd like to say to them is: "Ahem, I'd like to read more about the individual/book your reviewing.....PLEASE!!!"

fresca said...

Meaning no disrespect, but they all seem like Geminis to me:
STYLE is all.
Content is optional.
(In a bad mood? Who, me?)

You are so right. You can pin a writer's era when you read a few of their sentences, usually, except for the truly unique voices, and half the time you can't make any sense of *them* at all (James Joyce).

I know I too sound like my times, and that's OK, but I don't want to sound like a mental cyborg, at least.