A writer’s life, like any life, should be well-considered. We should take stock periodically and ask ourselves what we’re doing, where we’re going, and if we’re on course. Is there a better route we might be taking? Do we have exactly the things we need in our packs? Should we be walking faster? — slower?
A comment came in yesterday by regular contributor jhagman that encourages just such an assessment. It was written in response to my previous post, “Durbin Finishes Reading a Book!” You can read the original comment there, and I’m going to quote it here in its entirety, but the gist is that jhagman takes me to task for my slow reading speed.
Let me preface this by saying I in no way intend this as a “counterattack.” All civil, legitimate expressions of opinion are welcome here. And I’m fully aware that the commenter meant it constructively, implying that s/he’s waiting for my next book and calling me one of jhagman’s “favorite writers.” So, thank you, jhagman! I do appreciate the thoughts! I offer this post in a friendly spirit, as the self-reflection they triggered. Here’s the comment:
Fred, reading this post made me sad! I think it was Samuel Johnson who said, “It takes a half of a library to make one book.” At your rate of reading, it might be a lifetime of 100 years before we see another book! While reading ESL papers of students does constitute “reading,” unless they are like Joseph Conrad, you spend the bulk of your year not reading literature . . . ugghh! Can they pay a person enough to live like that? When I was at Fort Benning (paratrooper school) I got through two books — The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy, and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, and the school I was in was for me no picnic. If I can do it, you can do a lot better with your reading! Lecture over, but when one of my favorite writers reads a book a year. . . . Enough said.
First, jhagman, you know from this blog that I’m the first to lament my slow reading pace. Two or three times I’ve studied books on speed-reading techniques and have tried to master them, but it’s never worked out for me. Fiction is just too precious to me to zoom through without looking back. I agree with you that I should be reading more. If I knew a way to do so, I would.
But consider this: I have a friend, also a writer, who reads tons of books — book after book after book — and she feels she should be reading more. We could all be doing better. You should be reading more, jhagman! Why didn’t you read ten books in paratrooper school, you slacker? Think of all that time you have before pulling the rip cord, when you’re just twiddling your thumbs in freefall — what, may I ask, were you doing then?! 🙂 There are uncountable great stories and characters out there, waiting for us on the shelves, that will be waiting forever. We’ll never have the pleasure of most of them. We are limited creatures. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King acknowledges this. He allows himself time to read for pleasure in the evenings, but he says that at his age, he’s had to become much choosier about what he reads, because he doesn’t have time to read it all. (I “read” King’s book on cassette tape while walking, jhagman — do I get some points for that? :-))
I love the Samuel Johnson quote! — half a library to make one book. Richard Peck said, “We write by the light of every book we’ve ever read.” And Tolkien, of course: “A book like The Lord of the Rings grows like a seed in the dark, out of the leaf-mould of the mind.” Oh, I do not doubt that we become better writers the more we read.
But I would caution that that’s not everything. There was a joke (I think it was a joke) I heard about an aspiring violinist who couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t more successful, because he went to symphony concerts every night and sat in the front row. See the point? Reading books is fine — it’s necessary — it would be hard to be a concert violinist without ever having attended a concert as a listener. But sadly, there are aspiring writers who have read a hundred times more than I’ve read, but who never seem to get the pen to the paper, who never seem to finish a story of their own.
Another good friend, also a reader of this blog, once said to me that she feels she doesn’t have exceptional musical talent, but that she has the gift of truly enjoying music. Some people listen to a lot. Some people read a lot of books. Some go through whole DVD stores seeing every film that catches their interest.
Ultimately, I don’t think it’s about reading volume. There’s this famous advice to writers: “Don’t read 100 books. Instead, read your 10 favorite books 10 times each.” I don’t reach that goal, either. But when I do read a book, I digest it pretty thoroughly. I study nuances and structure, and I think about it carefully, while I’m reading and for weeks afterward. I often sigh with momentary envy at friends who are not writers, who can read without their crafter’s eye and mind automatically engaging — who can read irresponsibly, just dashing through the book. But my envy is momentary. (It’s like those times in the years we played Dungeons & Dragons, when now and then I’d want to enjoy the wild abandon of playing as a player-character, not running the show from behind the DM’s screen; so I’d beg some other member of the group to launch an original, separate campaign, and I’d play as a character for a meeting or two, swinging my sword and puzzling over riddles, finding delight in exploring the unknown — but then I couldn’t wait to get back into the DM’s seat.) In the end, what I love to do is write books. If that means the sacrifice is that I can’t read like a 12-year-old, barefoot and carefree — so be it. Heaven is coming in four or five decades at the most, and I’ll catch up on reading then. For now, I’ve got writing to do.
There was a year when I worked full-time at a Japanese company. It was ostensibly a “school,” a senmongakkou, but it was a company: the management’s only goal was extracting money from the students. Still, there were some dedicated teachers there trying to teach between a rock and a hard place, and I did my best to be one of them. That year, I was so physically and emotionally drained every day that there was no way I could write. That’s the one year I did quite a bit of reading. I read like a normal person — almost every night, and on the weekends. I finished reading quite a few books that year, and doing so was very nice — very calming and anchoring.
But it’s a tradeoff. For me, I think it’s possible either to read regularly or to write regularly. Reading is “for me” — it’s fun, and it feeds me. But writing is a calling. Writing is what leaves something behind in the world, something that I hope others may enjoy and benefit from. When I have to choose, I choose writing. Is anyone out there inclined to blame me? [Achilles: “Is there no one else?!”]
I was happy to hear Barbara Hambly at the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary say that when she’s writing, she has no time to do any reading; and she’s writing constantly — has been for decades — so she confesses that her knowledge of the genre is almost entirely from the books she read in her youth. So I figure if I’ve got Garth Nix on my side regarding character creation, and Barbara Hambly on my side concerning reading, I’m not alone.
Next, about the issue of day jobs: back in college, two of my closest friends and I made a promise to one another that we would never in life work long-term at jobs “just to make money” — that whatever we set our hands to in life, it would have merit, it would be worth doing. It would somehow glorify God, use our talents, and serve humanity. Except for a very few brief transitional jobs that enabled us to get from one situation to another, all three of us have kept that oath. (And that’s by God’s grace, of course — I can see now that there was youthful idealism and impetuousness in the vow, and there are plenty of people in this world who have no control over what they must do to keep food on the table. The three of us have been blessed that we were able to keep our rash vow.)
So, no, jhagman: at the senmongakkou, they couldn’t pay me enough to not-write. Once my contract was up, I was out of there, and I had a wonderful time explaining in great detail to my bosses why I didn’t want their juicy contract renewed. I took my soul and left. But now, at Niigata University, it’s my privilege to have classes full of excellent students who are, for the most part, eager to learn. I’m able to give them something. I know now what my gifts of perception, language, sensitivity, patience, flexibility, tomfoolery, clarity of explanation, compassion, organization, and dramatic performance are for. When I’m teaching writing, I’m teaching something very dear and real to me; and when I see the students’ final drafts, I know why it’s okay that I’ve labored over their rough drafts and answered their questions.
What value, you may ask, is there in English conversation? Well, I won’t get into the usefulness of communication in English in today’s world, but I will simply say that a university classroom is an overall experience. Some of the best things I got from classes in college had little to do with the content of the courses (and some did). When I was a student, I took notes on my favorite professors’ personal stories and philosophies just as eagerly as I took notes on what we were there to study. It might be said that my college major was “Froehlich and Lettermann” with a minor in “Sorensen.”
I’d like to believe that I’m helping my students a little farther along the path of learning “how to suck all the marrow out of life” . . . helping them to figure out what it’s all about, and how best to spend their time on this spinning rock.
Can you pay a person enough to do that? Well, no. I’m glad they do pay me something, because I have to pay bills. And I’m glad I’m doing the job.
But the story doesn’t end there. A university job allows more free time and autonomy of mind and spirit than any other job I’m aware of. I was able to write The Sacred Woods — a full-blown novel — during my first semester this year. As to whether or not you’ll have wait “a lifetime of 100 years” for the next book — well, I’m writing them, but I can’t control what publishers buy. Writing the books is the only thing I have any degree of control over. (And we do know that The Star Shard is still scheduled for Fall 2011 — so put that on your calendar!)
So, jhagman, shake my hand before we go away this week: we’re friends, you’re among friends here, and your comment is well-taken. You are not wrong. I will try to do better. Let’s all try to do better, each in our own vocations. As dear Professor Lettermann said (which probably had no direct connection to the class at hand): “One of the best things about our theology is that we don’t have to be what we’ve been.”
Or, as Scarlett O’Hara says, “Tomorrow is another day.” (But that’s in some book I haven’t read.)
But at the same time, I’ll go on making the decisions I have to make. Time is limited, and as I see it, the books I’m waiting to read are friends I can depend on. They’ll be waiting for me, whether I live long enough to open them or not. Their words and their writers, some long dead themselves, are cheering me on in my own task.
“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” (Whitman, quoted in Dead Poets Society.)
The books that need me most are the ones waiting to be born.