I decided it was time to improve my writing. It felt both forced and stifled: artless, lifeless, joyless and uninteresting.
And my reading was falling off too, both in quantity and quality.
The two problems — with writing and reading — seemed connected. I hoped reading more (and more importantly, reading better) would help me write — and maybe vice versa. Like the way David Remnick said it a couple weeks ago:
You have to learn to read like a writer, in the same way that a doctor looks at a human body maybe a little bit differently or a painter looks at the human form differently than the rest of us.
So “I’m going to read more books that people who read books read,” was how I phrased it: my New Year’s resolution: a deliberate reference to Richard Posner’s famously hostile review of Malcolm Gladwell:
Blink is written like a book intended for people who do not read books.
So no more over-simplified and monosyllabically titled books about “surprising truths!”
By “books” I guess I mean literature, or “literary books” — or perhaps just “respectable fiction.” I was getting too stuck in a marketing mode: too comfortable, gradually losing my imagination. I felt like a car that’s been driven the same safe speed for to long and had lost its ability to pass on the highway.
On the other hand I already spent years reading high-quality stuff — some of my favourites: Jacques Barzun, José Ortega y Gasset, William James, A. N. Whitehead, John Dewey — and it’s been great and challenging and very fulfilling for me personally but isn’t in fashion with the type of audience that’d be willing and able to read what I’ve produced from it. The stuff I really love, the stuff I “curl up with” and lose track of time when I read, the stuff I’m most inclined to emulate (and have in the past), doesn’t endear me to many readers.
So I have to keep reading and working away…
The first name on my reading list this year was Borges. I certainly wouldn’t say I “get” Borges now but even after our short acquaintance I found myself writing differently (or thinking differently when I write). I could suddenly withhold important details to create surprises later on in a story (i.e. actually creating a story) instead of just laying out all the information in the most logical, predictable order.
Writing is about not-telling as much as it’s about telling (or moreso, not-showing as much as it’s about showing). Working the balance between what’s known and what’s not-known is what makes it joyful and interesting.
Something similar happened when I read a couple of Chekhov‘s short stories. I was struck by how much he left out of them. He gives us a few seemingly casual but skillfully sketched bits of info; our minds fill in the rest: enriching the story with a sense of relevance within a larger unknown narrative without quite making us feel deprived at the end.
Recently Robin Sloan shared something that captures this notion pretty well, quoting William Trevor:
I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more.
At the other end of the spectrum is David Foster Wallace, whom I (like a lot of people) have been trying to catch up on before reading The Pale King. I’ve been infatuated with his journalism for a while but I’ve found it tougher to get into his fiction (mainly because almost all fiction is tough for me to get into).
I’ve got Infinite Jest here (the precise location of my bookmark is a detail I’m happy to leave out of this story) but what I really loved was a Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky. It’s essentially just a transcript of five days of interviews and camaraderie between Wallace and Lipsky at the end of Jest‘s promotional tour in 1996. Beyond being about David Foster Wallace it’s a glimpse into the business of writing and publishing, and simply just an insightful and fun conversation between two guys I’d like to have a beer with.
(Like most books I’ve ended up loving, I didn’t go looking for it. It caught the corner of my eye — the newest, shiniest object on a pile strewn on a desk — part-way between two points in the library.)
Unexpectedly, I found myself less inclined to want to write like Wallace. I love his style, I admire his skill, his creative process interests me and I’ve adopted some of his influences (lately becoming a fan of Don DeLillo), and I sympathize with some of his experience. But instead of emulating him I’ve found the net effect has been to emulate his courage and confidence — courage and confidence to write like myself.
Or maybe I’m just making excuses for not finishing Infinite Jest.
Yeah, I’m not afraid to give up on a book (though I rarely quit altogether; I just put them aside, hoping for a better time, e.g. perhaps after I’ve read more of what Wallace read). Mainly I feel like I’m a bit too old for the intense romantic devotion it requires but still too young to have read enough of what I need to have read first…
I guess that’s just the nature of wanting to read excellent books. Geoff Dyer describes this dilemma in his wicked essay on reader’s block:
The strange thing about this is that at twenty I imagined I would spend my middle age reading books that I didn’t have the patience to read when I was young. But now, at forty-one, I don’t even have the patience to read the books I read when I was twenty. At that age I plowed through everything in the Arnoldian belief that each volume somehow nudged me imperceptibly closer to the sweetness and light. I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Ulysses, Moby Dick. I got through The Idiot even though I hated practically every page of it. I didn’t read The Brothers Karamazov:I’ll leave it till I’m older, I thought—and now that I am older I wish I’d read it when I was younger, when I was still capable of doing so.
Dyer is another writer who’s helping me write more like myself. Though whereas Wallace helps me by being different, Dyer helps me by coming close to what I’m already trying to do on my own.
Read Out of Sheer Rage, for example. It’s a book about procrastinating from writing a book, and in the process of doing everything except write the book, he ends up writing the book in a different but probably more interesting way.
Like Dyer, most of the more creative things I really want to write are that same type of paradoxical, ‘tried doing one thing and failed but by the time I recognized my failure I turned out to have succeeded at something better.’
I’m especially sympathetic to what motivates him:
I wanted to know more – and the best way to find out about anything is to write about it. If I’d known what I needed to know before writing the book I would have had no interest in doing so. Instead of being a journey of discovery, writing the book would have been a tedious clerical task, a transcription of the known.
I’ve been trying to explain that to people for years, but after reading him say it I was like, ‘ok, now I don’t have to, because I know I’m not the only one who thinks and feels this way,’ and more importantly, ‘oh crap, it’s already been done.’
But what’s funny is that the realization of non-originality wasn’t a disappointment; it was relieving. It freed me to move forward and find new things to write about — to find joy in what got me into writing and reading in the first place: not just writing what I know but trying to put together the pieces of what I don’t.
For me, not-knowing is what makes the writing process joyful and interesting — like the experience of reading. It’s most compelling as a sequence of glimpses waiting to be found — glimpses not just of a story or a book but of an author or creator.
We keep compiling influences and references but ultimately it’s how we synthesize and represent them through ourselves, in our own, way that matters most.
Update: This is too relevant not to tack on: Geoff Dyer on David Foster Wallace and “literary allergies” (via @newinquiry) — sometimes there are writers we respect and want to like but can’t read without getting a rash and watery eyes:
Maybe in some homeopathic way reading Infinite Jest would cure me of my allergy. Perhaps I just haven’t consumed him in sufficiently large doses. But even a small dose is, in my experience, an overdose. He’s funny, he’s hip, he has this whopping supply of verbal energy. His braininess and virtuosity are as hard to avoid as a 747 on a runway—and almost as noisy. He’s one of those writers who won’t let the reader get a word in edgeways.
But we’ve all got to try, at least — not just Wallace but anyone. What works out and what doesn’t is often a surprise.