Until I heard this I believed that a writer who didn’t read was like a surgeon who had learned completely by practicing on patients and had never studied. I believed you’d be so handicapped it would be extremely difficult to become a good writer.
Yet here was someone I knew who was a successful writer AND she didn’t read.
Yesterday a friend lent me William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. In Chapter 1 he talks about being invited to appear on a panel at a school to discuss writing as a vocation. His fellow panellist was a successful part-time writer who was also a surgeon.
The different answers the two writers gave to the same questions were astonishing.
1. What is it like to be a writer?
Dr B: Fun, easy, words just flow.
Zinsser: Hard, lonely, not fun, words seldom flow.
2. Is it important to rewrite?
Dr B: Absolutely not. The free form reflects the writer at his most natural.
Zinsser: Rewriting is the essence of writing.
3. What do you do on days it’s not going well?
Dr B: Put it aside, go fishing.
Zinsser: A professional sticks to a daily schedule, he’ll go broke if he waits to be inspired.
The way these writers thought was diametrically opposed. As I read through more answers I found I sometimes agreed with one and sometimes the other. It became apparent that neither author was ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ They were simply relating their personal experience of writing.
My former student and I couldn’t be more different in the way we see reading.
She doesn’t view her lack of reading as a barrier to her writing. And it hasn’t been.
I’ve learn incredibly valuable things about writing from reading other writers: how Marion Halligan can immerse me completely in place, how Virginia Woolf can split open a moment in time, how Peter Carey uses metaphor seamlessly, how Jonathon Safran Foer experiments with words and form in original and truly effective ways, etc, etc.
And it made me think about other writers I know and how different we all are when it comes to how we write.
One friend writes everything in her head before one word goes on the page.
I write to find out what I want to write.
Another friend writes from a state she calls wonderland. She wanders, trusting the process and when she comes back to earth finds her work has formed itself. I often bleed words onto the page.
Another writer talks into a voice recorder. Some write straight onto the computer. I write longhand into large notebooks.
Some writers don’t give a hoot about symbolism or metaphor. Others work them in painstakingly and consciously. I trust they’ll be there and search for them in my 2nd draft to bring them out.
Someone I know gets up at 5am to work when the house is sleeping because she needs complete silence to write. I saw a writer I know in a crowded and noisy café working on the novel which would later be shortlisted for the Vogel Award. I can write anywhere, just not late at night.
Some write their first draft in one burst. Others can’t write the next paragraph until the one before is perfect. I write in scenes and fiddle with one before I can move onto the next.
Some write to an outline, start at the beginning and move steadily to the conclusion. I write where the energy and excitement is and can write the ending first.
It’s easy to worry that you’re doing it all wrong when another writer finds writing easy and fun and you find it like walking over broken glass. My supervisor at university couldn’t understand why I didn’t write beautiful polished prose straight off in the first draft like he does.
‘Think of all the time and effort you’d be saving yourself if you did,’ he said exasperated.
I didn’t write like he did, because I couldn’t. I have to write my ‘pig swill’ because that’s where I discover what I want to write about, what it means to me, who my characters are, what makes them do the things they end up doing, what’s important to them. I think on the page. And because I often don’t know what I think until I write it down how can I arrange it in its clearest form, in language that expresses it most effectively.
You don’t have to be writing for long to realise there aren’t any clear-cut rules. There are all types of writing, many kinds of writers and as many kinds of methods. There are guidelines that may or may not work for you.
But we should try everything. By trying them we can adopt and adapt those methods that help us say what we want to say, that feel ‘right’ for us.
Keep in mind that what may work best for us is a way of writing that no one else practises. It may be something we came up with ourselves.
And that might include not reading.