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Reading and Writing -- Pleasures from the Same Wellspring

It is my contention that the desire to read and the desire to write come from the same place – a longing to live in fantasy. They are both great brain candy (but good for you so perhaps ‘brain fruit,’ though more substantive than that so perhaps ‘brain kale’ but that sounds unpalatable. Clearly the metaphor needs some collective work.) An interesting piece recently ran in the New York Times Book Review, in the back section called “Bookends” – always one of my favorites in the newspaper because of the quality of the writing and the subtlety of what they discuss. On Sunday, June 12, 2016, the question was whether or not it is harder to be transported by a book as you get older. And what Benjamin Moser says is “the problem is that the deeper you go into your own writing, the harder it becomes to enter someone else’s. If pursued seriously, writing demands a kind of obsessive concentration that came, at least for me, to preclude reading.”

Reading great stories or novels adds another dimension to one’s life as if having a secret rendezvous plan; and writing is exactly the same way, only more mysterious. There are so many more options when you are writing and so writing is always more engaging than reading. When you walk across your apartment toward a book you might think, “I wonder what she’s going to do now?” But that decision has been made, and made by someone else. And so while the resolution has not yet been revealed you read, you pick the book up, confident that a resolution has been reached. When you walk across your apartment toward the laptop that contains your own story you might think, with a tiny bit of fear, “I wonder what she should do now?” And that is part curiosity, part challenge. I often tell my students at The Writing Salon to read the masters but not read too much, don’t sacrifice your writing time for reading. Reading is valuable but it can be a form of procrastination, allowing you to dip into the fantasy world without going through the hard work of constructing it yourself.

I find that reading can also confuse the voice one is using while writing. It’s difficult to find one’s own writing voice – it’s developed over years of creativity -- and within a single piece it is challenging to develop clearly delineated speech patterns or voices for each of your characters. While reading it’s very easy to fall into the pattern or tempo of the author’s voice in the piece being read and suddenly discover it being mirrored in your own work.

I read a lot, although not as much as people would assume because I can’t sit still long enough to make any significant headway. I am therefore a new fan of the audiobook, since it can go with me as I obsessively bounce around my life, but like Benjamin Moser, I cannot read fiction while I write fiction. Instead, I voraciously plow through non-fiction and reference books. History like The World Lit Only by Fire, by Hamilton; The Little Ice Age, by Fagan, A History of the World, by Thomas. My best friends are reference books like The Timetables of History by Grun and The Traditional Bower’s Bible by Allely, et al. Anyone who wants to write historical fiction is or will be a big fan of research and spend much of their time carefully digging through volumes to find the nugget of a good true story or a detail that adds that critical, missing verisimilitude. For me, that is The Medieval Word Book by Cosman. For Moser it is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Dickinson, the Hebrew Psalter. For both of us, he captures the situation: “The longer I write, the more I realize that stories are the last thing I need. What is missing are not stories but the words to tell them. These books give me those words – and they help me, like the music I listen to while I write, not by transporting me that by supporting me.”


#JessWells, #historicalfiction