Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 6 April 2009

Read, read, read and then read some more


If you spend all your time reading books you won’t have any experiences. Of course it may give you some idea about what experiences to have. – Carrie Berry (a.k.a. The Missus)

reading_44595As a part of my continuing efforts to prove to the world that I am not a real writer I thought I'd take a look at my reading habits over the years.

Let me first say a word or two about my opening quote. As I was preparing my notes for this post I stopped every now and then and interrupted what my wife was doing (as is my wont) to read her interesting and amusing quotes. Her response was to provide me – totally off the cuff and completely unrehearsed – with the opening remark. And, albeit a flippant remark [when taken totally out of context. Mrs. Ed.], it's an interesting observation especially when it comes from a woman who, as a kid, needed to have books literally torn from her hands before being kicked outside to get some of that fresh air parents keep going on about.

I was not that kid. When I was young I was always outside. Home, as I think I've said before, was nothing more than a filling station. I read but books were not the fulcrum on which my life was balanced. It seems odd that I would end up as a writer but then, having read a lot about how other writers grew up, it does seem to me that I'm not your typical writer if such a thing exists. I've gone years without writing, I've also gone years without reading and it's taken years for me to start missing either.

Like so many writers I began with poetry. The thing is, I didn't especially like most of the poetry that I'd been exposed to, 'Mr. Bleaney' (as I've mentioned so many times) being the glaring exception. Once I left school I started to get books out of the library, anthologies mainly, so I could get a taste of a variety of style. And I was pretty unimpressed by the lot of 'em, again with a singular exception, the American poet, William Carlos Williams. To my mind there was a clear connection between Larkin (who by this time I'd read more of) and Williams: they were both plain speakers and I liked that.

The poetry I began writing in my late teens strived to do what they did. I had found my voice and although I continue to read poetry to this day I have completely lost the need to search the texts for a sense of me. I am just an ordinary reader these days, reading for pleasure although there are still very few poems that truly excite me.

Prose was something else entirely. I never saw myself as a novelist. I never even wrote short stories. Had I been aware of flash fiction back then I may have had a go at that (and I keep wondering why I don't try to write more of it now) but I wasn't; prose simply took too many words to say what I wanted to say. The idea of writing one was unthinkable.

I was looking at my collection of books earlier and it's striking how many of them were bought during my late teens and early twenties. And yet I have no clear recollection of sitting and reading any of them. For most of that time I lived across the road from where I worked, or a short cycle away (yes, I used to cycle), and so I never read in transit. I was newly married and although my first wife was a voracious reader (half a dozen books a week) I still don’t remember the two of us sitting reading together. It must have happened because I have the books but I don't remember it. I actually used to get her books from the library and she'd summarise them for me. How sad is that?

nobel_medal At the time with a few exceptions I was only reading books by people who had received either the Nobel Prize or, since I was into science fiction too, the Nebula or Hugo awards; I don't think a science fiction writer has won the Nobel Prize but please feel free to correct me. The simple fact is that during those few years I did my best reading: Hermann Hesse, Ernest Hemmingway, Albert Camus, John Steinbeck, Jean-Paul Sartre, Yasunari Kawabata, Samuel Beckett, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Saul Bellow... you get the idea. But the goal in my mind was quantity. I gravitated towards thinner books so I could sample more styles although I would read two or three books by the same author if they caught my interest.

I've tried to think what books I read in my thirties and from my shelves it looks like about a book a year but I know there's more. It just puzzles me that I don't have many of the books. I got better in my forties and there's about five shelves covering that period but even then I'm sure others will have read much more. And the only place I can really remember reading is on public transport. In fact when Carrie and I were looking for a flat to buy we deliberately picked one a decent bus ride from the town centre where we both worked at the time specifically to give us time to read because we found we weren't doing enough at home.

These days I do most of my reading in the early hours of the morning – we're talking around the 3am mark because that's usually when my head is the clearest. Any other time and I start to doze off after half a page and nothing goes in. And I have never been able to read in bed.

You see, and this is the real confession, I find reading hard work. What I find hard about it is the fact there are so many words. Why are books so ruddy long? There's really no need for all those words. The first draft of my first novel was under 30,000 words and a part of me wishes I'd kept it that length; the padding was for everyone else. That's why Beckett was such a joy to me. He said what he had to say and got off the page. It's still my No.1 rule for writing.

Now, thirty years on, I'm rather depressed when I think about the writers I've not read, not a thing; there are so many.. I've read of them but that's another thing entirely. The first Dickens I 'read' was a few months back when my wife decided to have a go at Little Dorrit and she read a few paragraphs out to me (see, she does it too). I've happily slagged off the guy for years based on what others have written about him although I have to say, after what Carrie read to me, I don't feel the slightest bit guilty. When she'd finished her reading I said, "He was paid by the word you know." He really is a wordy bugger.

I did a search on Google looking for answers to the question: What advice do you have for budding writers? The answers were predictable and it didn't really matter if the advice was coming from a relatively new or a seasoned author.

S. E. Hinton: [D]o the best you possibly can. Write, write, write, and read, read, read!

Jayne Anne Phillips: Read, read and read. Insatiable readers, hungry readers who read obsessively, are the readers who become writers.

Firoozeh Dumas: Read, read and read. Nothing prepares a writer better than reading the works of accomplished writers. It helps you find your own voice.

Kishore Thukral: Just read, read, read, read, read a lot. You would end up writing much better than you did previously.

Toni Blake: Read, read, read. Read the kind of books you want to write. And read not only books you think are good, but also books you think are flawed – then figure out what does or doesn’t work in them. Reading widely – and with a critical eye – will go a long way toward making you a good writer.

Erik L`Homme: Advice for budding authors? I would like to give them three words of advice. First, read, read and read some more.

James Meek: Read. Read. Read. If you read a book and think I can do better than that, then that’s the wrong book but if you read a book and think I cannot do better — then read that.

John Baker: When I was young I read somewhere - don’t remember who said it any more - that if you want to be a writer, you should write. You should sit down and write for ten years and at the end of that time you’ll be a writer.

So that’s what I did. That was my way. I thought it was good advice. I still believe it to be good advice. But these days, if I say that to someone, I have to qualify it by stressing that one should also read. Read, read, read.

There are variations along the path to becoming a writer. One thing always leads to another.

I could provide more; LOTS more. And so many of them go for the three-for-emphasis approach. Some say read everything, backs of cereal boxes, whatever; others says be selective. There seems to be no common ground other that hammering home the fact that a writer is a reader who writes. All of which makes me wonder why I don’t have the same passion for reading as I have for music. I have it on all the time (although I have gone through patches of playing nothing for weeks on end – I had one a few weeks back when I was changing my meds) and it doesn't matter how many CDs I own I'm always happy to receive more. My music collection dwarfs my book collection. I literally have ten times as many albums as I have books.

So why aren't you a composer or a song writer, Jim?

Good question. During my teens – from about twelve on – that was what I wanted to be. Poetry was 'just a phase' I was going through as far as I was concerned but I spent hour upon hour in front on a keyboard mostly writing. In fact as soon as I taught myself to play the only obvious thing was to compose. And I kept at it until my early twenties. The last piece was a duet for two recorders of all things.

But I'm digressing. The question I need to ask is how much do you need to read? I'm not saying that a writer should never read and I'm always keen to dip into something a bit different but how often does a new writer like that crop up? And even then, that's his or her thing. I don’t want to start copying anyone, certainly not at my age. Not that I ever did when I was young, two or three poems inspired by Williams and about the same after I discovered Beckett that was about it. My two Larkin poems came years later and the first one really wasn't very good because I was trying to evoke his style.

Apart from Webern, whose output was small, I doubt I own the complete works of any composer. I have complete sets of symphonies (Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich to name three) but I still tend to play the same old ones. God alone knows the last time I played any of Beethoven's first four symphonies. I really only have them to complete the sets; I'm very anal that way. If Beethoven was a novelist I'd probably only own his fifth and eighth because they're the shortest.

Amongst the many quotes I found this one appealed to me:

Charles Hugh Smith: If you really, really want to write deep, probing literary fiction, then get life experience. Don't hole up in academia. The number of great books written by college professors who have the hots for vulnerable co-eds is zero. (Nabokov was a writer long before he was a professor, and furthermore, Humbert Humbert had the hots for a 12-year old.) And don't mistake travel for experience. Yes, travel is adventure, fun, dismal, even frightening at times, but it is only a certain slice of experience, a rather thin slice. It cannot replace starting (and failing at) a business, or engaging in a great political struggle, or working at a variety of manual-labour jobs alongside a wide variety of people.

And read deeply, not just fiction, but psychology, philosophy and theology. Understand the conflicts of the human condition and the multiple layers which influence human behaviour. Make such research a life-long habit, because there is no end to the variations of human behaviour and the advances being made by science in understanding the human psyche.

For one thing we only get one 'read' from him but that's not it. I think his is a more balanced response to the question. John Grisham says similar:

It is terribly important to read extensively. Virtually all writers I know are voracious readers still, and that is preparation. The more you read, the more you know. The more your imagination works, the more you read. And that’s — those are the tools of a good writer.

You have to live. Nobody wants to hear — the world does not want to hear — a great novel from a 21 year-old. You’ve got to get a real job and get a real career, and you’ve got to go to work. And you’ve got to live and you’ve got to succeed and fail, and suffer, a little bit, or see suffering, heartache and heartbreak and all that before you really have anything to write.

I think this explains why I didn't sit down to write what turned out to be my first novel – bearing in mind even then I never sat down to write a novel – until my mid thirties. By that time I had considerable baggage to root through for ideas. I like what Joe Queenan had to say on the subject: "Do not write anything until you are 30 as you will have absolutely nothing to say. Spend all your time reading the great writers. [The opening quote was a response to this statement. Mrs. Ed.] You can catch up on the writing part of things later…" Joanna Trollope said something similar: "You can't be too old to be a writer, but you can definitely be too young!"

What surprises me is that that first book isn't nearly as biographical as I expect many first novels are. I think casting me as an old man helped there. The interesting thing about that old man was that I made him a bookseller who hardly read, who had an impressive collection of books on his shelves at home "so that, when he died, the undertakers would be able to lean on his coffin, enjoy a fag, look up at the wall of books and say, "My, 'e must've been a clever bugger," before carting him off down the back stairs."

I'm not as bad as that – bear in mind Jonathan is a gross exaggeration of me – but the fact is I have a surprising number of books on my shelves that I have never read and probably never will.

These days I read with even more difficulty than ever. A few days ago our Internet connection went on the fritz and I sat down on that first day and read the first hundred pages of John Baker's Winged with Death. I couldn't tell you the last time I read more than twenty or thirty pages in a day. It helped that John is a decent writer and I got caught up in the book but I've only read about twenty pages each day since and before I start a chapter I always look to see how long it is to see if I think I can make it to the end before giving up.

You see there is reading and there is reading. I was looking back at my cupboard full of books, the ones from my teens, that are a bit too faded to display and there are a few that I can remember absolutely nothing about. I didn't read them. I turned the pages and when I got to the end I thought I could add another book to the list – yay, I've now read x number of books! I recently reread Transparent Things by Nabokov to see if I could remember anything and apart from the description of the puddle at the start everything had gone. The irony now is that I can still barely remember what it was about; nothing stays these days. I could do a bit better now but not much and I pretty much expect John's book to fade from my memory after a few weeks too. If you ask me in about six months I'll be able to say it's about some guy who goes to Uruguay and comes back tango-ed. Sorry, John.

Reading still...I was going to write 'inspires me' but I don't think that's quite right...reading encourages me. Not every writer I read but certain ones. Jeanette Winterson is one. I cannot read anything by her and not come away with a desire to write, not to write like her – I wouldn't know where to start – but to open up Word and simply start clattering away on a keyboard. Why her? Because she doesn't just tell stories, she has a love of language and that is infectious.

There's not much music that makes me want to move. Dixieland jazz is one and if I'm in the kitchen and no one but the bird is watching then I have been known to shuffle to the beat a bit. I think a good book is like that. It makes you want to respond, not copy, like a good jazz musician might.

I'm not sure how my reading is going to pan out over the years to come. I know as long as I keep writing this blog I should be okay if only because the nice people at Canongate keep sending me 'care packages' which reminds me, I owe them a couple of reviews – now, which are the thinnest books?

For the record my daughter is a great reader but then she has her mother's genes and my encouragement so I would have been surprised if she'd turned out any other way. Before she was born I'd bought her 100 books and I always make sure Xmas and birthdays include one or two if not five or six. I still love shopping for books. I just can't be jugged reading the ruddy things.


John Baker said...

But you do read them, Jim. Otherwise you wouldn't be able to write.
Thanks for this piece, it brought to mind Eliot's essays in The Sacred Wood, and in particular, this paragraph from Tradition and the Individual Talent:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.

Dave King said...

I do recall as a boy my dad knocking book learning and myself knocking experience. Just part of the battle of the generations, no doubt. I do also remember our professor when I was training, saying: Some people have 20 year's experience and some have 1 year's experience 20 times.
My own reading habits have tended to go in phases. The first phase was the ancient Greeks, then came Russian novels, then it was all science, after which theology took over, and now it is mainly poetry. Always along the way, though, there has been the occasional book to break the mould and shake me to the foundations.

Ken Armstrong said...

My son bought a book the other day, he said, "I just didn't want to be caught for a moment with nothing to read."

Father's son, that lad. :)

When you touched on music, the old analogy occurs that you can listen to all the symphonies you want to, it doesn't mean you're ever going to be able to write one. It is possible that there is a little bit of that in writing too. I see it in screenwriting where you tend to hear things like, 'I've read 'Chinatown', I'm ready to write mine now. :)

Bobby Revell said...

I can certainly appreciate your thoughts on reading shorter novels. I think "War and Peace" was entirely too long and could have been even more effective with 300,000 words or less. Working 70+ hours per week and spending late nights writing my novel keeps me from investing time in reading lots of books right now, so I tend to read shorter novels or anthologies as you mentioned. Luckily I did lots of reading in my younger days. To me, writing is much like musical composition . . . it is learned and earned; however, life is and always will be the greatest source of inspiration. Reading is just the icing on the cake.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the quote, John, you’re quite right (well, Eliot is if I’m reading him right), we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants. Yes, I do read but even apart from my present ails I’ve never been a voracious reader. I have gobbled up books in the past only to forget them in a very short time. My wife read your latest novel in two sittings whereas it took me a week and would have taken longer had our network connection not gone on the fritz. It was certainly not a hard read but I seriously cannot think of the last book that I’ve started reading and lost track of time. Reading has always taken conscious effort. I’m just out and out jealous of those who can read quickly and retain what they’ve read or maybe I’m simply assuming that all these people who devour books can remember what they’ve read. That’s a thought.

Knowledge vs experience, eh, Dave? My father never read a scrap of fiction all the time I knew him. Even my first novel which I had to read to him since he was going blind we never finished. He never discouraged me as a writer unless you count his lack of encouragement as discouragement. When I was writing music in my teens, that he got and he would come into my room and get me to run through my repertoire for him not that he really needed to because I played so loudly the next-door neighbours could hear and often commented on how well Jimmy is coming on with his playing.

Ken, I’m pleased to hear your son is like that. My daughter is exactly the same and it pleases me no end. She’s doing a university course at the moment so she has next to no time to read anything bar text books and it’s so hard not to buy her books.

I think your comment about music is interesting but the thing is I did want to write symphonies – I still do – and the same goes for painting – which I had a crack at too – but my real talent lies with words and so I let the other two go but I will be honest I can never listen to a piece of good music or look at a well-executed work of art and not feel the itch. I have a music-writing program which I potter with every now and then but time is my eternal enemy. Maybe I’ll manage a string quartet before I die. That I’d like.

And, Bobby, yep, been there, done that. All I can say – and take this from a man who has burned out four times in his life – it’s not worth it. One day you will not bounce back and you will wonder what the hell is wrong with you. What will be wrong is that you will be broken. You’re not the only one doing it I know but do look for a way to cut back a bit.

I have to agree though with you about life being the greatest source of inspiration. And this goes back to the comment John made earlier, I do read. Quantity is not the be all and end all though. When I read, I aim to read good books and that is what I have read since I was a teenager.

j said...

Until my son came along, I always had a book in play. Now, almost four years later, I've had to fight to return to reading. I've really missed it and feel that I need it, too, as a way of keeping myself immersed in a world where people really care about language.

One of the things I've been doing lately is reading short stories, both because they are short and because I've been thinking about the format. It's a strange combination of reading for pleasure and for the chance to take things apart.

As far as life experience goes, I recently read an award-winning story by a young woman that was all about prep-school romance. The language was beautiful, but the subject matter -- eh.

Art Durkee said...

Harlan Ellison, the well-known SF writer, once opined that the novella is the perfect length for a story: not too long, but long enough to be fully fleshed-out. I've heard the same opinion come from other writers, including Robert Silverberg, who is one of the masters of the novella, in my opinion.

I think if you start comparing how much one person reads against what another person reads, the comparative game can be both affirming and harmful. One can set oneself up for feeling superior or inferior.

For example, I've always read fast, and retained most of what I read. When I re-read it's usually for pleasure, not because I've forgotten it all. When I was 16, and the average length of a published SF book was about 125 to 175 pages, versus these monsters we have now, for that summer and early fall, I read a novel a day, every day. Because I'm a fast reader, though, I still was outside most of the day, or at least all afternoon. I read all of James Joyce except the Wake before entering college. (It was some time before I figured out to read the Wake, btw; you have to read it out loud in a vaguely Irish accent, and then it all makes a lot more sense than most people think it does.) I don't know if I can chart statistically exactly how much I retain of anything I read, and I don't know if it's worth charting, but it's most of it.

But my point is, when some people hear about this fast-reading which I do (to be clear, it's not speed-reading or any system; I just always was able to read fast), they shake their heads. I can't always tell if it's disbelief or dismay.

So, I think comparing how much and how often we all read might be pointless, in the end. There are prodigies of reading who put me in awe, too.

The real question then is: Are you, for your needs as a writer, reading as much and as often as YOU need to read? Not all writers read as much, or the same stuff. The question is: Are they feeding their own individual needs? I think the basic idea that writers need to read, read, read is a good and true idea. What that means exactly to each writer is going to vary, though. Some writers read more, pound for pound, than others; the question is, are they reading enough for their own needs, as writers, versus what you or I think they might ought to be reading.

The musical analogy is apt again: I'm a composer and musician. I don't listen to music all the time; in fact, sometimes it clogs my own music. There have been periods when the only music I could listen to was my own, because anything else made me unable to hear what I needed to hear, inside, to get a composition done. After one of those periods, then I can put on the stereo and listen to all kinds of other music, again. It goes in phases.

Reading certain writers also directly triggers in me the need to write, right now, even before I've put down their book. Other writers I read tend to percolate a long time, or need no response. I've been re-reading LeGuin's Earthsea books this past week, after re-reading part of The Lord of the Rings last week; I was ill with a headcold, and restless for spring to warm up. I can always feel in my own writing some connection to LeGuin, and she often makes me want to write; I don't get that from Tolkein, ever, I just re-read it periodically for pleasure.

I think writers from reading AND from experience, too. Like I said, I was outside all those summer afternoons, too, as much as I could be, usually off riding my bike for long country rides, or going down to the community swimming pool, or something. Of course I might have a book along, too. Just in case. Oh yeah, I just remembered. A favorite biking destination was the nearest bookstore, which was about 2 miles away, maybe a little more. The owner was himself a published SF writer, so his shelves were always well-stocked with new books for me to dive into.

R. Brady Frost said...

It's probably considered blasphemous by the purists, but these days I find that when I don't have time to read a book, I can listen to an audio version and gain much the same benefit.

It's a bit silly, sometimes I close my eyes and imagine the words in type as the speaker reads them. My most recent book was Ender's Game, one which I would love to buy the actual book to read personally.

It is hard for me to find books I enjoy. I pick them apart. Stephen King is very hit or miss for me. I had a hard time with Lord of the Flies, primarily due to the style of the writing. I am very happy that 'presently' has fallen out of popular usage. It is a word without its own merit. "He sat on the log presently and surveyed his surroundings." - I think we can safely assume that he is sitting on the log as we read it without the use of such a word. Still, I often regret that I didn't tough it out and finish the book. The premise is very interesting, maybe I will mellow with age and will be able to read it for what it is in the years to come.

Art Durkee said...

Brady makes an interesting point about audiobooks.

When I'm on one of those long cross-country roadtrips, I almost always have a couple of books on CD with me, to listen to for part of each day. Sometimes you reach saturation and need a break, sometimes you listen all day while driving.

I don't find fiction works at all for me, for driving, however. I far prefer nonfiction, poetry, and books on spirituality or personal development, when doing one of those drives.

Truth is, I don't much mainstream fiction worth reading anymore. And almost zero best-seller fiction.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Jennifer I like short stories too. I’ve just read some by a Chinese author, the first work by a modern Chinese author I’ve ever read. Isn’t that shocking to get to nearly-fifty and never have read anything by a Chinese writer? Anyway, I’ll be blogging about it in a week or two so I won’t say any more.

It’s strange though, I’ve never spent a lot of time deconstructing short stories, novels, yes, but not stories, and films and TV shows all the time.

That’s where I can sympathise with your point of view, Brady because time is in such short supply these days. The thing is finding a decent adaptation, that’s the problem. Most people would agree that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an excellent film and faithful to the spirit of the book, which it is, but in the film the big Indian Chief is a fairly minor character despite having a pivotal role whereas in the book he is the narrator and thus the whole perspective of the story is changed.

Lord of the Flies is another example of a film adaptation where the film falls short of the book simply by making the kids Americans. Okay, they were cadets but watching British public schoolboys devolve so quickly is part of what the book is about. I read it when I was a kid and I was really a bit too young for it but it had the desired effect on me and the image of Piggy’s head breaking open has never left me.

I don’t have much patience for audio books although I have to confess I’ve never really given them a fair trial. I’ve always meant to especially when driving but when else would I get to listen to my music at the volume which it needs to be played at? Alas I don’t drive any more so I just have my iPod-thingy but that’s really not the same and half the time I forget to lift it when I leave the house.

And, Art, what can I say? A book a day! I hate you. I already hated you for your stamina but now I have another reason. But you are right, it’s not helpful to compare us. As I’ve already said, I’ve always been quite careful about what books I’ve read. Now I’m getting sent review copies I find myself getting exposed to some newer writers and, for the main part, they’ve not been so bad and some have been quite good. But there isn’t one I would have picked up in a bookshop.

I’ve never read Finnegans Wake though. I’ve read Dubliners and I have an old copy of Ulysses which I’ve started several times. I’m not fond of his verbosity and it disappoints me that Beckett became so enthralled by him because his first efforts, especially Dream of Fair to Middling Women are close to unreadable.

I personally feel I read enough. I wish I had read more when I was younger but I can’t wish that I’d read better. The books I read in my teens have formed a bedrock on which the writer I’ve become stands.

I’ve also never read The Lord of the Rings. Christ! The size of it! I did read The Hobbit in my early teens and promptly sat down to write a sequel. It came as something of a disappointment to learn that Tolkien had already had a crack at one himself; fair took the wind out of my sails it did.

Art Durkee said...

Jim, I've rarely been so honored to be so hated—if you take my meaning. :) You get my point about comparing, obviously, and get it well.

Last week I had a first-time visitor over, and he spent a good hour going from one of my bookcases to the next, looking at everything carefully, and pulling one or two to page through, while we talked about art, and favorite artists, and literature. My visitor had actually come over to model for me, for me to get some practice doing portrait photography. This was how we spent our last hour or so together. I enjoyed it a lot.

I rarely think about "showing off" my library, it's just there. So it was a real pleasure to meet someone who was into books as I am; I don't get that often around here.

So when you say you feel you read enough for your needs, and had a good foundation from reading in your teens, that's exactly what I think, too, and exactly what I believe.

Perhaps one reason I have little interest in writing fiction, and feel I have no ability for it, is because I read so much of it in my own teens. Since then, I've read a lot of other things, of course. Perhaps it's just that poetry and essay come more naturally to me, as forms, whereas fiction doesn't. It's daunting to me, actually, to think about attempting a novel. I wrote some avant-garde short stories in my teens, which I've kept around in a box somewhere. (One of them obviously a cloaked sexual fantasy in retrospect; embaressing to look at now, too, I'm sure.) I even won an award or two for a couple of those stories, one of them a national award. But now? Hmn. Doesn't seem likely.

sidhe said...

Found you while link hopping and found myself completely sucked in. :)

I used to read voraciously. Bibliolocust style. Cut huge swathes through the library. But then I had kids, and reading fell down the list of priorities. My kids are almost grown now and I read mostly non-fiction and poetry.

I guess my thoughts on the subject (not that you asked, eh? :)) are that it's important to do both. Live and read.

I also think authors who say 'read, read, read!' don't really know what else to say to wannabe writers who are rarely satisfied with the obvious answer - if you want to write, go write. And write some more.

Jim Murdoch said...

Art, you’re welcome. I can’t think of a nicer guy to hate. I can relate to you opening up your library like that. I feel that way about my music collection, a part of me would quite like someone to come in and go, “Wow!” and then ask if I had such-and-such a piece of obscure music which I would then of course retrieve from a shelf. The simple fact is that I have only a fraction of the music I would love to own but in all seriousness there are few major composers who aren’t represented. I don’ think I have any Purcell but I’d have to check. Probably not.

As for your capacity to write a novel, I have no doubt whatsoever that if you put your mind to it you could have a first draft done in a fortnight. I’m pretty sure my first novel didn’t take any longer even though I pottered with it for five years after that. The question you would need to ask is: “Do I need proxies to do my talking for me?” I certainly did and still find I do. There are times I actually feel quite exposed on my blog. I’m a backroom boy, always have been.

And, Sidhe (pronounced “Shee” in case anyone wonders), lovely to see a new name, especially such an interesting one. Glad you stumbled across my site and thank you for adding a link on your own. My wife and I enjoyed the wee Leonard Cohen interview by the way; Carrie is a long-time fan.

You’re quite right of course and if you look at most of the quotes you’ll find that the authors also say to write but I can’t think of any that said, “Write, write, write,” with the same emphasis and I’m sure none of them said, “Live, live, live.” I have always learned by doing. Even if I didn’t know what I was doing I did it anyway and it usually came out all right.

I’m not sure if I mentioned this in the article but one thing I’ve always been wary of is copying which is why, with a couple of exceptions, I’ve never read more than a book or two by any particular writer. At the beginning I was only writing poetry and so it didn’t really matter what prose I read because I wasn’t writing any; it was poetry I hardly read.

Unknown said...

Jim you are always inspiration to me. i also buy many books but unable to find inclination to read. Kafka's METAMORPHISIS, Herman Hesse's Siddartha and Saul Bellow's Humbolds gift are among them. Atleast my son has read the first two.

Unknown said...

Jim you are always an inspiration to me.I also buy many books but unable to find inclination to read. Kafka's Metamorphisis, Herman Hesse's Siddhartha and Saul Bellow's Humbold's gift were among them.

SeLiNa said...

Great post. You are exactly right about reading. I try to read as many books as possible. It fuels my creativity and keeps my mind open to experimentation.

Not a big Steven King fan, but I did read his book "On Writing" (which I loved) and one of the things he says which has stuck with me is this:

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware off, no shortcut."

-- Stephen King, On Writing

Simple in it's concept, but it's amazing how many writers either A.) Don't read the works of others or B.) Don't write often enough.

Art Durkee said...

It seems to me that the "read, read, read" advice comes from the hard-earned awareness on the part of many writers that the best way for a writer to learn how to write is by example. Not necessarily by imitation, although there's nothing wrong with five-finger études that are imitative of some master's style; just keep in mind they're études, not your Great Novel, not yet.

"Read, read, read" is your study time. "Write, write, write" is your practice time. Both are required, of course. But all too often, the shortcut many fledgling writers try to take is by writing a lot but not reading a lot; which, to be blunt, is one source of a lot of badly clichéd writing from beginners. The point of "read, read, read," and why some writers might emphasize it more than "write, write, write," is because lots of impatient fledgling writers really DON'T read enough to get a sense of how to write.

Observing and absorbing how it's done comes before attempting to do it oneself in most other fields of learning; so it does in writing, too.

So I disagree that telling wannabe writers to "read, read, read" comes from a lack of having anything else to say to them. From almost every mature writer I've talked to about this, especially from those who also teach writing, I've heard the same opinion: Writing is mostly self-taught, and your teachers are what you read, not the person lecturing to you about what you're reading. Of course you must write, too, but if you write without reading even more than you write, you're writing blind. The honest writing teachers will tell you that in every instance you must teach yourself; they mostly offer direction when required. But you're pretty much on your own, and there are few real shortcuts. Writing is a profoundly autodidactic discipline.

Having said that, there's still often an imbalance. The thing is, Jim's reminder that "live, live, live" is also a necessary part of the mix, is one of the things that gets emphasized even less. It seems to me that when you read a writer's biography from 50 or so years ago, you could usually find a long list of odd jobs that had little to do with literature. Those were the experience-gathering years in a writer's arc, an apprenticeship in living life; it was considered usual, and a very acceptable career path. A lot of those jobs might have been for paying the bills while one wrote at night, of course, but the value of gathering experience was acknowledged.

Nowadays, people seem to think that writing means getting a college degree, an MFA, or something otherwise obtained in an academic setting. Writers have become a professional class crowned by the laurels of academic degrees.

So now literature, or perhaps Literature, has become its own profession, taught as though it were a skill anyone can learn, like automobile repair. We have workshops, in realspace and in cyberspace. People think that getting an MFA is enough to make them a writer. Well, it might be enough to satisfy the requirements of "read, read, read" and "write, write, write," but it almost never includes "live, live, live." The exceptions are those rare people like a friend of mine in California who went to get her MFA in poetry after raising three kids, retiring, and getting divorced. She brought a lot more to the table than her fellow MFA students, the vast majority of whom were in their 20s.

"Live, live, live" is important because it's the third leg of the tripod, which has to be in balance with the other two legs, to hold up the whole edifice.

Anyone can go to school now and get an MFA in writing. They can "write, write, write" to their hearts content, and maybe they'll even come out of school as one of the lucky minority to have a published book right away.

But all the learned writing skill and craft in the world is pointless if you have nothing to say. Having something to say is what the "live" and "read" legs of the tripod are for. "Write" alone gives you nothing to say.

Conda Douglas said...

Does anybody else have this problem? I love to read, but read by mood. So I usually have many books borrowed and am "into" 3 or 4 simultaneously. It can get confusing.

Dick said...

Full of surprises as ever, Jim. I had you pegged as a voracious reader, pretty much covering the waterfront from Amis to Zola. That having been said, even though I am a voracious reader (and frequently too verbose a writer), I have much sympathy for your declaration that 'prose simply took too many words to say what I wanted to say'. I encountered the writing of Beckett and Pinter at the same time and both changed, changed utterly my perception of quality and substance in writing.

Jim Murdoch said...

Mohankumar, always happy to provide a bit of inspiration here and there. I’m actually always surprised when I look at my shelves how many books I own that I’ve never read, and that figure is growing; I’ve probably got a shelf full of unread books some of which I know I’ll never read but there are others I feel I should because they’re good books but I never seem to be in the right frame of mind to tackle them.

SeLiNa, I’ve heard a lot of people recommend Stephen King’s On Writing but I’ve yet to locate a copy. I’m sure it would be an interesting read – I particularly enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead which I read a few months back but I’m not sure I learned anything that I could use personally at this stage in my writing life.

Art, lots of valid points as always. I studied Applied Mechanics at achool, came top of the year in fact, but my father had to a) remind me to check the oil on my car and b) show me where the dip stick was. I had drawn diagrams of the two-, three- and four-stroke engines and I had a head full of formulae but when faced with the physical realisation of what I had been studying I was lost. For starters it was so dirty. My diagrams were clean and precise. This was a whole other world.

I like the metaphor of the tripod very much: read, write, live – you need all three to be a balanced author. As for the ratio of one to the other, let’s not go there. I suspect it will be different for each individual anyway.

Moods, eh, Conda? I suppose I do read by mood – I’m either in the mood to read or not. Facetiousness aside, yes, I do have to have the right mindset to tackle certain authors, e.g. Beckett’s later prose needs to be approached with a clear head, something I rarely have these days, but I can muddle through most of the stuff I have to read at the moment with my head the way it is. I have had books sit on my shelf for years through literally and then one day the mood has come upon me and I’ve picked the thing up and read it. Contrary, that’s what I am. But I’ve never had more than one book on the go at a time, not ever that I can remember.

And, finally, Dick, yes, I can fake it quite well but I really am not as well read as most people assume I am. I think I’ve mentioned this before but my first wife read half-a-dozen books a week and she wasn’t that fussy about what she read so I’d go to the library for her and bring back books I wanted to read which she would read and then summarise for me. A handy arrangement that was.

I really hate it though. Every book I read, every time I sit down to read, I count the pages to the end of the chapter I’m about to start to make sure it’s not too long and I give up on the way and really twenty or thirty pages at a sitting is enough. If I find myself skipping sentences or starting to scan then I usually stop because I realise that I’m going through the motions of reading and nothing is going in.

That’s why I’m so careful about the books I read, review copies aside, because I know the effort that a book is going to require and I don’t want to waste my time and energy on tripe. I remember once in my teens going into Smiths bookshop in Glasgow, spending three hours there and coming out with nothing. I simply couldn’t choose.

apprentice said...

I love Jeanette Winterson too. Her website is also remarkably generous to other writers, especially poets.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, apprentice, she seems quite a lovely person. I met her once at a book-signing and she was delightful to talk to and certainly one of the most articulate people I’ve ever met.

Claire A said...

I'm a latecomer to this post (sorry!), and I'm afraid I'm going to stick a spanner in the works and say that, although cliched, the 'read read read' advice still needs to be pummelled firmly into the heads of young writers... perhaps more now (when reading figures among young people are nosediving...) than ever. Regardless of whether you find it hard/easy, enjoyable/torture, you can only write well because you have read SOMETHING. I see hundreds of submissions a month to Read This from young people, and you can tell from the first two lines of a piece -- poetry or prose, though poetry is more instantly obvious -- whether the writer has ever done any real reading. The ones who haven't are always pretty terrible writers.

Once you've mastered the art of writing, by all means give up reading. But when 17 year old kids who've never read a line of poetry in their lives start whinging about their work not getting the breaks, what advice can you give other than read, read, read?

Jim Murdoch said...

No need to apologise, Claire, I know how busy you have been of late. As for your comment, no, I agree totally with you, and I never meant to suggest for a moment that writers don’t need to read anything – Christ, no, that would be ludicrous – rather I was responding to the implication that writers have to read constantly. As I’ve pointed out already (but it’s worth underlining) from the time I left school I made a point of only reading great literature, books by authors who had won awards, although I admit freely that there are many classic authors I’ve never looked at (basically anyone before the 20th century) but when you find reading hard work – and I’ve never understood why I do – you have to be picky and I was. I don’t think anyone should give up reading completely – there’s too much worth reading – but as a source of inspiration I think it has to take its place in the queue.

Tiffany Gholar said...

I agree with your statements about the importance of life experience. I wish I had known this when I wasted time and (borrowed) money on a semester and a half of a fiction MFA program. At 22, I did not have a novel in me. But after I dropped out and worked in retail for a while, I had plenty of stories to tell. I would encourage young aspiring writers to take such a job for a while where you can meet all kinds of people and gather their stories and then you can create good fiction.

Also, I am glad to see that not everyone agrees that you must devote all your spare time to reading. I'd been feeling guilty about not reading much fiction since the aforementioned MFA debacle. But I have read a great deal of other books about psychology, history, art, design, philosophy, and current events, and someday all of that will inform my writing. Now I am 30 years old and almost ready to return to writing again now that I have something to say.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that comment, Tiffany - I'm glad you found the post encouraging. The point I really wanted to hammer home is that none of us should feel bad for not living up to some imagined, arbitrary, this-is-the-way-things-have-to-be-done "standard" because we're all different. If you think you're ready, girl, then you probably are but you'll never know till you have a go. "Almost ready" can turn into an excuse if you're not too careful.

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