“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
The Vintage Advice
We’ve all heard the venerable advice: to learn our craft and hone our skills, read, read, read. Writers we admire proclaim, like Stephen King, “Read, read, read.” Granted, when we first start to write, reading the works of other writers can show us many approaches and techniques, enlarge our sense of subjects we thought were unthinkable, and give us models for daring to write what’s really burning in us.
But with all this reading stoked up, there’s a time to stop.
Surprising? Probably. Heretical? Maybe. True? Unequivocally.
I don’t advise this action—or inaction—from peevishness, contrariness, hatred of those published, or any other self-indulgences. Rather, like many writers, I’ve experienced the distressing effects of too much reading.
Reactions From Reading
When you read while you’re writing, you experience conflicting reactions, all distressing. First, you see a terrible disparity. Your teeth clench, and you want to throw up your hands and throw out your computer. “I’ll never write like that!”
Case in point: A longtime writing friend finally embarked on, and struggled with, a memoir of his growing-up years in New England. I mightily encouraged him and regularly fed him nuggets of support.
Then he made the mistake. He wrote, “I’ve been reading Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City. Oh, boy, that’s a memoir.” I could see his face droop across the miles. “Damn,” he continued, “I’m out of my league.”
This remark signaled he was in danger of deserting his project. I whipped off a reply crammed like a care package with nourishing motivational chunks to counteract his reading contamination.
The second effect of reading while writing is that you get jealous as hell. You compare yourself—unfavorably, of course—with the writers you’re reading. Despite your devastating judgment, you’re unable, like inhaling aerosol, to put their work down. You aggrandize them, worship their descriptions, roll their phrases around incessantly in your head. You fester with envy: why didn’t you think of those grand, pithy, sonorous, sagacious words or done what they’ve done, especially at their early ages?
And you’re sure you never will. The gap between your work and theirs is wider than that between a mother’s command and her child’s action. You crave with a fervor greater than for diet-forbidden mac-n-cheese to actually be those other writers.
Once you get over the horrible shock of their brilliance and exhaust your fantasies that they’ll be stricken with a writhing voodoo plague, a funny thing happens, the third result of reading while writing: you begin to write like them. Rarely consciously, of course, but it’s a particularly insidious consequence.
My friend recognized this affliction during his own creative throes. He read yet another memoir, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. And mused, “Am I, I’m athinkin’, lookin’ at a whole rewrite? Sorry for the dropping of the ‘g,’ but it’s ol’ Bob’s influence.” If he imitated Dylan in his letter to me, who knows what Minnesotan Dylanese turns of phrase he imported into his New England memoir?
My Reactions From Reading
I recognized my friend’s experience in my own. As a yearning teenage writer, I read constantly, especially Jane Austen and Ray Bradbury. My stories revolve around superintelligent alien beings flirting coyly, sipping extraterrestrial tea over witty conversation, and always monitored by puzzled, insufficient humans manipulating complex machines. It took a long time to change my settings and mindset.
In those years, I had no critical distance. As an adult, though, to my writerly chagrin, I’ve also yielded to greater, and inappropriate, style infection. After reading Hemingway, I wrote a love story in terse, gruff prose. After reading the eighteen-century novel Tom Jones, I wrote about a corporate high-rise story with stilted eighteenth-century flourishes. After luxuriating in two of Henry James’ novels, I wrote an article on a 3K race in endless, half-page sentences. More recently, reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (not the whole thing), I sighed mightily at his reckless, tempestuous, perplexing prose. Trying to reach such heights, I produced only stilted, fake-deep prose.
Why Avoid Reading?
Even if you haven’t become infected with the imitation virus, pay attention to the cautions of wise writing teachers. In an essay unambiguously titled “Don’t Read While Writing,” Leonard Bishop in Dare to Be a Great Writer says, “The moment your involvement with professional writing becomes a commitment, your reading habits should undergo a transformation. . . . When you begin writing seriously, it is wise to transform the time you use reading into time to be used for added writing” (pp. 286-287).
Why? Bishop likens the writer’s mind to an onion, made of “layers sheathed around deeper layers.” To reach more of our own core of knowledge, we must constantly peel away the layers we’ve accumulated of other people’s views, outlooks, and style. Bishop explains: “Isolation from reading while writing; separation from the ‘escape’ habit of reading; removal from the analysis of other people’s work help you peel away the sheaths” (p. 287).
Creative coach Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way is more ruthless. For writers suffering from creative blocks, she prescribes a severe remedy: total “reading deprivation.” That’s right. No reading at all. Well, except maybe in your reply to a text or two.
More toughly, she echoes Bishop. “For most blocked creatives,” she declares, “reading is an addiction. We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own” (p. 87).
To extend Cameron’s metaphor, too often we abandon our own kitchen and rush to eat at others’ restaurants. But what does this avoidance get us? Only intellectual bloating, a queasy feeling of wasted time, and the nausea of self-disgust. And worse: stuffing ourselves with all that reading keeps us from discovering our own feelings, thoughts, awarenesses, truths.
What Reading Deprivation Gives Us
Reading deprivation is crucial because it forces us into ourselves. As Cameron says, no reading “casts us into our inner silence . . . our own inner voice, the voice of our artist’s inspiration” (p. 87). To write anything worthwhile—anything true to ourselves—we must explore, delve inside, and, whatever our discomfort, stay there. We must peel away those layers, to “begin to listen,” as writer, counselor, and psychologist Joan Bolker puts it, “to the demands of the inner world” (“Teaching Griselda to Write,” The Writer’s Home Companion, p. 173).
Only this way, I believe, will we reach our own core and unique expression in content and style. My friend, reading Kazin’s memoirs while working on his own, judged himself out of Kazan’s “league.” But my friend hadn’t stopped to listen to his own voice. When you finally turn away from reading and enter, even tentatively, into your own nurturing mental and physical silence, you are, as Bishop assures us, “no longer out of your depths—you are pushing into them” (p. 287).
When you continue to read others as you write, your production may well be a stale copy of those you admire. It will not ring with your own resonance or stamp. And you may never get to know your own stamp at all.
Why are you writing, after all? Aside from the superficials—the hoped-for money, recognition, non-corporate-cubicle life—isn’t it your voice you crave to appear on the page, and not that of anyone else? Isn’t your fondest desire to say something unique, through the lens of your most pure perceptions, to develop the voice that’s quintessentially yours to express?
Maybe you’re protesting with old comebacks: Nothing is new under the sun, we stand on the shoulders of giants, everyone has the same experiences. Well, let me remind you of a few things.
Even if you write about the most common, overworked subject, no one else can filter it through your eyes and mind. No one else can bring your perspective to the subject. No one else has your voice or your core.
Maybe we’re afraid of going into our “depths” because we think we’ll discover only emptiness, or worse, insanity. Maybe we’re sure we’ll find a pit of clichés, like old snakes thrashing fiercely to get onto the page first. Maybe we fear we’ll find only shells of what we’ve read before, shadows of other writers’ phrases wafting through amorphous space like ghost ships. Maybe we fear, worst of all, that we really have nothing to say.
It takes trust to go deeper. We must quiet all virtuous admonitions, external influences, stimulations, and admirations. We must trust in the richness and inexhaustibility that are in us, dive in, discern what’s there, and bring it out.
So, go quiet and listen to your own voice. Go deep into your experiences—the ones you dread and the ones you treasure. Let them surface.
The deeper you go, the more courage you’ll gain and the more strength you’ll find to record on the page what you’ve discovered. As you keep writing, you’ll marvel at the unearthings of a you that you may not have known, a you who offers ever more to discover and transmute for others.
The worlds within you are hardly plumbed. They’re humbling, exciting, and infinitely accessible. They’ll show you what you’re meant to write. So stop reading others, listen inside, and write.
© 2018 Noelle Sterne
Author, editor, writing coach, writing workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Academic editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees. As part of pursuing her writing Dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach their own and create the lives they truly desire.
Author, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams. Unity Books, 2011.
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