To Read Or Not To Read, And Yet to Write—‘Tis A Conundrum Devoutly To Be Solved

July 24, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More

I’ve heard of this phenomenon, but never before encountered it directly.  Excuse me, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the utter vapidity of this…

I have a MySpace page.  Admittedly, I pay less attention to it these days in lieu of my Facebook page  (all these Pages…for such a functional Luddite, it amazes me I navigate these strange seas), but I do check it at least once a week.  I post a short blog there.  And I collect Friend Requests.

I received such a request the other day from someone whose name I will not use.  Unless it’s from someone or something I recognize, I go to the requester’s page to check them out.  Saves on a small amount of embarrassment.  This person had a legit page.  Aspiring writer.  Claimed to be working on several short stories and a novel.  Great.  I’m all about supporting other writers.  Sometimes we’re all we’ve got.  But I scrolled down to the section where he lists his interests and find under BOOKS this:

I actually don’t read to much but I do like a few. Twilight, Harry Potter, Impulse, Dead on Town Line, etc.

I sat back and stared at that and the question ran through my head like a neon billboard, “How does that work?  Just how the hell do you want to be a writer and not like to read?”

So I sent this person a message and asked.  I told him that to be a writer you have to love words, love stories…

Well, here’s the exchange, sans names:

Okay, you sent me a friend request, so I looked at your profile. It says you want to be a writer, but then under Books you say you don’t read much.

How does that work? You want to be a writer you have to love words, you have to love stories, you have to love it on the page, and that means reading A LOT.

You might just blow this off, but don’t. If you really want to be a writer, you must read. That’s where you learn your craft, sure, but more importantly that’s where you nurture the love of what you say you want to do.

Either that, or you’re a poser.

Apologies for the bluntness, but I am a writer and before that I was a reader. You can’t have one without the other.

Mark

REPLY:

You don’t have to like both to be a writer. That’s a ridiculous thesis to be honest. That’s like saying that you have to like listening to someone else to you how their day was in order to tell them how your day was. It’s just true. Reading bores me, and prefer to witness a story as a much faster pace, eg. a Movie. Writing, however, doesn’t bore me. It’s as simple as that. I don’t know why people always over complicate simple things like that.

MY RESPONSE

Well, good luck with that. It’s like being an auto mechanic and not liking cars. Or being a musician who doesn’t listen to anyone else’s music.

Maybe someday you’ll get it.

Mark

You don’t have to like both to be a writer?

Well, I suppose in the absolute strict sense of wanting to write things while disliking going through other people’s work, he’s right.  But that, it seems to me, is legitimate only insofar as a narcissistic indulgence.

But a ridiculous thesis?  How do you even come to a notion of what it means to be A Writer without some affection for the product in general?  This is so alien to my experience, my way of thinking, that I’m still struggling to make sense of it.

It only scans in one of two ways.  (A), it’s not that you want to be a writer.  Being a writer is hard work, it’s paying attention to all manner of triviality that goes into the making of Life, sorting it into piles of Meaning and Dross, and

Image by Leeser at Dreamstime.com (with permission)

Image by Leeser at Dreamstime.com (with permission)

from that compiling and elucidating an observation that is relevant to strangers, because if you publish you have no idea who will read your words, and the viability of what you do must find a resonance with people you do not and will never know.  Being a writer is living through the word, through the paragraph, the scene, the story.  The way in which story operates—how it comes to be, how it is constructed, how it moves—can only be learned by responding to it yourself, both in life and on the page, but on the page is where the art happens, and you cannot learn how to do that unless you read, widely and deeply.  So it is not that you want to be a writer, you want to be an Author, someone with titles strewn beneath your name, who is adulated by the public, respected for what wisdom may be found in works you presumably did by some mechanism (but not, apparently, by actually being a writer).  You like the idea of being a writer, but having no idea what the purpose of it is, you cannot be one, only, if you learn the trick, an Author.

Or (B) you are simply in love with the sound and look of your own voice on the page.  Nothing wrong with that, but unless you have some external input what you write will only be relevant to yourself.  It will be indulgent.  And it will have resonance to others only by accident—not because you are so different from anyone else, but because you have no notion how to convey your commonality.  It is a form of masturbation, and while that is legitimate, it is done in isolation, born out of a fantasy of connection and, in time, if it is all you do, an inability to touch anyone outside yourself.

But what genuinely troubles me is the whole disregard—the blind ignorance—of what writing is all about.  It is an art and if you cannot respond to the art you cannot do it, not so that it means much to anyone else.  It is, to stretch a metaphor from the previous sentence, like having sex with someone you don’t much care to spend any time with.  You like the orgasm, but you don’t want to be bothered with other people and their desires and needs.  It’s selfish, true, but it’s also tragic, especially if you then go and pose as a Great Lover.

We do have a generation (and I’m using that term to define an age bracket—this group includes people from 10 to 50) that is enamored of film.  That’s where it is for them.  But a lot of flawed and failed films get made and often—not every time—but often the failure is because someone doesn’t read and has no idea what it is that good writing conveys.  It begins with the word, but they want to bypass that.

Why?  I have a theory, of course.  Because it’s hard work to make the translation from words on a page to images in the mind.  Most of the people I know who do not read for pleasure—read fiction for pleasure, I should say—seem incapable of running the story in their imagination.  The words do not make pictures for them, do not open vistas of the imagination, do not convey the essence of character.  They’re just words on a page.  This is sad and I think a failure of education on a basic level.

But it’s sadder still when these sorts then try to do film.  Or fail to do film.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it till I have no more breath with which to say it—reading is fundamentally different from almost any other form of entertainment (the closest is radio drama) because it is interactive and participatory.  You must do the work of creating the images suggested on the page in your own mind.  It is a trick best learned young, but it is a trick that will give us the stars, because the imagination is a living thing that must be nourished from both within and without. If you cannot envision, you cannot build.

There are many reasons to read and I was encouraged more this year than ever before to learn, via and NEA report, that reading in America had increased substantially for the first time since they’ve been keeping track in 1982.

But you run across these bizarre confluences from time to time and you wonder how this happened?  I can live with the idea that there are people bored by reading.  But then to be told that these same people want to be writers baffles.  If reading bores them one can only assume that what they write will be boring—because they’ll have no clue how it can be otherwise.

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Category: American Culture, Art, Communication, Culture, Education, Writing

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (3)

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  1. Ben says:

    It just crossed my mind that Ludwig van Beethoven is perhaps the greatest composer ever, yet he did not listen to music because of his deafness.

  2. Ben, That's an interesting observation, but doesn't compare. Beethoven wasn't deaf his whole life, it was a gradual condition. He fell in love with music early. It is a tragedy that he could not hear later in life, but I doubt he would ever have claimed to be bored by someone else's music.

  3. Tony Coyle says:

    Mark

    I doubt he would ever have claimed to be bored by someone else’s music with the exception of Mozart

    fixed that for you 😉

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