Some people, you may be one of them, have a passion for reading and can pour through a book a day. It’s easy for these people to find a page turner and even if a book doesn’t take hold of the reader’s imagination or spark critical thought right away they keep trudging through. Maybe they believe that even if they don’t particularly enjoy the book there will be some self improvement by adding to their own knowledge base or expanding their minds in some way. I’m sure that may be true but to quote Bob Dylan “It ain’t me, babe”.
I can read and have tried to read many, many books but none of them have held me from cover to cover. I’ve forced myself near the end of several books but I’ve only completed a few. Many of you are probably thinking right now something about my not having enough imagination to truly enjoy a good book. Well, at the risk of offending, you’re wrong. When I read I can hear the voices of each character in my head and I can see the scenes but the actual act of reading is just a chore for me. I will read an article in a magazine, a blog or any of a number of things on the web but it is for the information contained within; not necessarily the enjoyment of reading.
A few days ago the university that I attend had a guest speaker, P.J. O’Rourke. He is a political satirist and journalist who has written for Rolling Stone, Playboy and Car and Driver, among others. During his talk he told the small audience that writing should meet at least one of three criteria: to entertain, educate or inform. Ok, I’ll buy that. He went on to add that in order to be a good writer a person must read, a lot. That’s when he lost me. As I listened to the rest of what he had to say I couldn’t help but think that he was wrong. He must be wrong. I mean, several people who like to read enjoy reading what I write so it must be good…at least a little. Once he’d finished there was time for a question and answer session; my chance to pick his brain a bit. One, two, three people asked questions and still he hadn’t acknowledged me so that I could speak. Another couple of people asked and asked again until finally, I was given the chance to ask him a question. The last question of the afternoon.
Me - Mr. O’Rourke, I know that you said that a writer must be a reader, but I don’t enjoy reading. People who do enjoy reading, however, enjoy reading my stuff. The point of my question is this: Is there anything that you would suggest in lieu of reading to make me a better writer?
Mr. O’Rourke – (paraphrased) Find something that you enjoy reading…There is a very small percentage of people who can be good writers without a lot of reading. (At this point I told him about the magazine articles and news etc.) You may just be a 2 or 3 thousand word guy. I’ve heard it said that one out of every one child has ADD. (Was this some kind of underhanded slap in my face?) He went on to talk about how sometimes he doesn’t enjoy what he’s reading and recommended that I look into short stories and he talked about how they were in vogue in the 18th century. He then thanked the school and the audience for having him.
I let what he’d said sink in a bit more but it still didn’t sit well with me. I’ve thought about how odd it is that I enjoy writing so much but lack a writer’s love for reading. The only way that I can make sense of it is to think of the things that I do enjoy; movies, television, music, conversation and observing nature and people. There is much enjoyment to be found in an understanding of how things and people interact. There is as much truth and provocative though in the songwriting of Robert Hunter as there is in a novel or essay. I guess you could say that I read sounds and images rather than words.
What is certain is that I won’t be actively looking for things that I do enjoy reading so that I can fit someone else’s idea of what makes a good writer. Instead I will continue along the same path that I’ve been traveling. I’m sure that I’ll grow as a writer but I doubt that it will be because of something that I’ve read, rather it will be because of something that I’ve seen or heard that made me think in a different way.
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