No. 120: Writing without reading
Confession: I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I usually do.
Problem? Maybe. But I don’t think so.
If not reading is what feels good at the moment — and it does — then not reading is what I’m going to do.
I’m not one to force things.
But shouldn’t writers read, like, always? Isn’t it necessary to rite gud?
1) Yes, and to that end I’ve read a lot and will read more 2) but if reading begins to get in the way of the actual, you know, writing, then no — and for me it can.
I still sort of read. Before bed, I’ll sometimes pick up my extremely long Barbara Tuchman book on “the calamitous 14th century.” On slow mornings, I’ll leaf through the New Yorker or Harpers. Very rarely, I’ll read an article on my phone.
But that’s about it, really. By that measure, my reading is no where near where it usually is. Fiction, there is none. Columns on writing, such as those by the always enlightening George Saunders, I’m actively avoiding. Other newsletters? Sadly no (but I still support). LitHub emails? Also no. The few non-fiction titles I’ve been thinking about starting? Nope.
Allow me to outline my (potentially dubious) reasons below.
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Since I’ve started to commit more time and energy to my story writing, I’ve developed an unexpected desire to avoid the stories — and ideas — of other writers. By not reading — or by reading very little — the literary part of my brain feels basically empty, a sensation that sounds unfortunate but actually feels really great. Only my own writing, and my own stories, fill that void. The risk of someone else’s voice, style, or technique bleeding into my work is eliminated. The burden of any recently-hatched theory is lifted, a great relief for a writer inclined to think way too much.
Am I crazy? Probably. But consider this anecdote a comedian once told about his early days as a performer. He would show up to the club, do his act, then leave, intentionally missing the acts that followed his. Eventually he realized this was dumb and starting sticking around so he could learn from the other acts and generally have a good time. He had become a comedian because he loved comedy, after all. Why, once he started performing, did he come to the conclusion he should stop watching it?
Truth is, I’m not sure. He didn’t say. It could have been for reasons similar to mine or something else entirely (trying to look like a badass a.k.a. ego?). In any case, that anecdote doesn’t seem to parallel my situation well enough. If I were to do a reading at a club or café, I’m positive I’d stick around to hear the other writers. A more accurate anecdote, then, would involve a young artist managing his proximity to that looming entourage of established artists a.k.a The Powers That Be, not his open-mike equals.
Conveniently, such an anecdote exists. The hero of that story Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Growing up, Kiedis had any number of musical influences that he listened to regularly. But during the early years of the Chilis’ ascension, Kiedis said “he wasn’t listening to anything or anyone.” Neither were his bandmates. His self-deprecating reasoning was that he and the Chilis were too damn cool for school. The big names in music? Lame. He and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were doing their own thing. The incubation period of influence and inspiration had ended. Now, it was time to create.
And I sort of get that.
Not to say that I’m experiencing the exact same phenomenon as a young Anthony Kiedis with respect to story writing, but, without inching too far into edgelord-dom, that’s exactly I’m saying.
In the last couple of months, I seemed to have reached a kind of boiling point. As my story writing has begun to take center stage, I’ve noticed a new tendency to push everything and everyone related to story writing into the background. I’ve had enough of consumption, of comforting advice, of great works written by others. I’ve had enough of doing the readings, taking the lessons, imitating (consciously or unconsciously) the styles of other writers. I’ve had enough of The Literary Institution as it exists online and on my bookshelf, as well-meaning and beautiful and magnificent as I believe it is.
I just want to be alone, in silence, and write.
I’ve become the writer’s equivalent to an annoying teenager. I’m revolting against the heroes and works that have inspired me the most to focus on — something. I’m living under my parents’ roof but will hear nothing from those “who know better” because I’ve heard it all, even if I haven’t. I’m in my room with the door locked and I want everyone to KEEP OUT per the hand-drawn sign on my door.
At least, that’s what I want right now.
My self-imposed isolation has made me feel very free and flowy in my work. It’s forced me to figure out what I’m doing and how I want to do it. I come to the page without distracting ideas or influences whispering in my ears like two angels on my shoulders, which I think has benefited what I write greatly.
On the other hand, it’s lonely out here. I don’t have a George Saunders newsletter to encourage me and keep me company. I don’t have masterful stories to prove what’s possible. I’m not reading about the latest in the literary sphere, news that’s always flush with new and inspiring names.
But isn’t lonely what all this is supposed to be?
Wasn’t Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the first astronaut, lonely out there in space?
Sure, there’s a writing community. But also, there’s not. When it comes down to it, being successful as writer involves only three things: me, the page, and my reader. And that’s a truth that can be tough to realize at a time when “advice” — and the comfort and community it brings — has arguably become an institution all its own.
Not that advice is bad.
How could it be? The trend of experts sharing knowledge is extraordinarily beautiful, whether it be through platforms like Masterclass, books like Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, YouTube tutorials, or something else. For my part, I’ve learned a ton from books and columns on writing, and there are more learnings to come no doubt.
My point is only that it can be hard to know when to stop with the advice and get down to the business of making things — especially when consuming advice feels akin to making things, but with a lot less effort. I’m trying to be careful here, because I love advice. I really think it’s a necessary step in the process of bolstering oneself to create. I can’t say enough about the generosity of established creators spending time to try to share some of what they’ve learned, time that could be spent on their work.
But can’t advice also be comfort trap? It’s easier to learn about making stuff than it is to actually make stuff, and the latter may be the only real way to learn.
For example, as I’ve ventured further into music making, I’ve noticed the sheer scale of advice-oriented content from the perspective of the uninitiated. My social feeds have filled up with ads offering paid courses, kits, and tutorials that promise to make me a better musician. I’m sure these offerings actually do speed up the process. My only fear is that they indirectly suggest an alternative to a “problem” that has only one solution.
Doing the work.
In my own way, I’d guess that I’m turning away from everything that isn’t doing the work by reading less. When I’m not doing the work, I’m left to sit with that uncomfortable fact as opposed to than glossing over it with half-truths like, Yes, but I’m reading, which will inform my writing.
Will all this last? Probably not. I love reading too much to stay away for long. And when I return to reading, I think it will be when I’m so confident in my stuff that nothing can pull me away.
For now, though, this mini-rebellion has been immensely enlightening, and, I think, a marker of growth as a writer. I’m no longer attempting to stand on the shoulders of others. I’m committed to doing my thing, whatever that is, and, as simple as it sounds, my thing is the only thing I can do to improve at my thing. Right now, I think reading can only screw that up.
As things stand, my choices are only 1) write or 2) don’t write.
In this Spartan environment, I feel better about my work than ever before. ♦
HEAR: “Arrowroot” by MF DOOM (YouTube)
READ: “Here” by Robert Creeley. I’ve shared this poem before, but it’s ultra-relevant to today’s topic. (Twitter)
VIEW: What is #corecore? (Instagram)
I think this is spot on. I am in the middle of writing a book and after watching some truly, well-meaning, and somewhat helpful writing advice videos, I now constantly scrutinize every little detail I used to love and not have as a problem before. I have rewritten my first chapter so many times now to do everything "right" that I don't even recognize the true plot line anymore. And let me tell you, it's hard to find it again once you have left the path you made your own in the first place. Once again, you writing has enlightened and educated me. Thanks, Matt. Can't wait to see your next article. Pure and untouched by the well-meaning "Advice Givers". :)
Hey, Matt, I completely agree. There's an optimal informational distance you need to keep when writing and that distance varies in a very individual way.