Reading and Intellectual Wandering

Dear Karen,

I am reading again. I know it is terrible to think of a writer who does not read, but I have been one for some time now. Well, I read, but not regularly. Not closing one book and starting another. Not widely and varied as I am told writers must do. Instead I read randomly and a lot fewer books than I used to.

Growing up I read a lot. I always had a novel to read. I remember in fourth grade when I discovered that writing stories was an actual respected thing. After that revelation, I looked at the rows of books in the library differently. Every one of those books represented not just the journeys of characters, but the journeys of the people who had written them. Not only that, these writers were grown ups. It amazed me to find out that a grown up could still work with her or his imagination, make things up, pretend. Now, when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had something to say besides nurse or housewife. Writer.

I toyed with writing all through my years of education in the public schools, and then I was dumped into the life of work and jobs, and I had to figure out a whole lot of things fast. Such as how to pay bills, how to budget, how to change a tire, how to cook. In your late teens and early twenties there are endless amounts of things that need to be learned and figured out. How to become a writer was the least pressing of them.

I didn’t write during that time, but I didn’t not write either. I didn’t write stories anymore, but I still scribbled in journals. I still kept a notebook of handwritten poems. I tried to teach myself to type. And I read. I didn’t stop reading until I started writing. Isn’t that odd?

I was in my late thirties by the time I got serious about writing. By then I’d held just about every blue collar job there could possibly be, and I’d been hauling around, from rental house to rental house, boxes of loose papers and scribbles and journals. In that box were ten years of procrastination in the form of pages started and stopped on an idea for a novel.

In each house I moved to I mentally renewed my dedication to writing. I set up my old scarred table that I’d pulled out of a barn, and I put my pretty jar of pens on one corner, and my typewriter that I didn’t know how to use in the center, and I’d put the chair in its place, and line up some notebooks, and I’d stash the box of papers in the closet, but beyond that I really didn’t know what to do. I still scribbled in my journals, but mostly while in bed or out in the woods sitting by a stream or a river, never at my desk. I dusted the typewriter. I smacked at the keys every now and then. Throughout it all I kept reading, while finding that developing a writing life was more bewildering than changing the oil in my truck. Much more bewildering. And messier too.

One day I told myself to start writing and not stop. I set up a schedule. One hour a day minimum, before I went to work, five days a week. I didn’t have to write on weekends if I didn’t want to. I gave myself five “sick days” a year, days in which I could blow it off if I felt like it, or really was sick. I wrote the schedule down as an agreement with myself, and I made the arbitrary decision that my novel would consist of twelve chapters and that I would write one per month. If I wasn’t satisfied with the chapter at the end of the month, too bad, I had to move on to the next one. It worked. The first draft of the first novel was finished in a year. It was a mess, but I had developed a writing practice.

As I wrote, instead of anguishing about not knowing the story or my characters, I discovered the story and got to know my characters. And then I found that I was reading more critically, that I could not read without looking at how a book was constructed, what words were chosen, or thinking that I would have done something differently. And as a result of this, and a few other things, reading fell off.

I no longer constantly had a book going. I didn’t fall into reading a story as easily as I used to. Add to this the pressure I felt as a published writer to read, and love everything. I didn’t love everything. There was a lot I didn’t love. Sometimes, if I privately expressed dislike for a book, I was ridiculed for it. So mostly I kept quiet, just as I had done as a child, only now I didn’t read much. I was embarrassed to admit that I did not think that everyone I was told was brilliant was in fact brilliant. Or that there were writers I thought quite brilliant that other people dismissed. I thought there was something wrong with me, that I was missing something, that I wasn’t smart enough to see what others saw. I was primed to feel this, as it was exactly how I’d felt in school.

I think now that we are all about equally brilliant, some more smart about one thing, others about another. And I also think now that reading is a very personal thing. It’s a sort of marriage between story and reader. The story asks for an investment. We do not, cannot invest in every story we meet, anymore than we can invest in every person. But I did not know that at the time. I felt ashamed for my reading habits, which had always been a sort of intellectual wandering.

I kept on writing. Writing, writing, writing, and then I started teaching and helping other people with their writing and their stories, and I began to simply feel a need for space without words. I began to doubt the twenty-six letters I had been given to work with. I began to doubt the power of words. I began to think that words are a little over-rated. (I still think this, she said in a blog. I know, the irony.) And reading became even more difficult.

Recently though, I’ve been involved in editorial work on a story I’ve already written. There are a few things to add in, a few things to consider, narrative choices to either defend or not defend, but there is no discovery involved in this process. I know the story and I love the story, but it’s not new to me, and until I finish this work, I can’t return to the project I stopped in order to do this. I miss that discovery that I always feel as I am writing a novel. I miss it badly. So, in order to have discovery in my life again, I decided to start reading regularly again. I decided to always keep a narrative other than the one I am working on going. I am reading for pleasure again, but I have a few rules.

If I am not enjoying the book, I quit. There is no need to labor over a book that is not engaging to me. This can happen anywhere in the book, and some books I have stopped reading ten pages from the end. If anywhere in the narrative I cease to care, then I won’t read further. I do this without apology or shame, and most importantly with an awareness that this says nothing about the book or the writer or me. We are simply not a match.

My other rule is that I still let the book come to me. This is how I have always read. I don’t follow reviews, I don’t read blocks of books by the same author, I am not driven by awards or best seller lists. I wander library shelves and bookstores and thrift shop aisles, and I listen for recommendations from other readers, and if something seems interesting I consider it.

I suppose it’s an odd way for a writer to be. There are so many of us, and we really do want to support each other, and pat each other on the back, and be well read and so on. But I have always been an intellectual wanderer. This is why I was terrible in school. I couldn’t focus on any one thing, any one subject, much less all of them. Instead I wandered. I looked out the window. I made up stories in my mind. I imagined things. And I read. And I am grateful that I still do those things.

But I wonder if this has happened to other writers. We, who are supposed to be the joyous celebrants of the written word. Do other writers just need a break sometimes? Or have they felt intimidated by the sheer volume of work that’s out there, waiting to be read, and the sheer (and sometimes shrill) opinions of others? Do we have to like all the same books? Do we have to read widely and varied, or is really okay, healthy even, to read only what we like?

Much love – Nancy






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4 Responses to Reading and Intellectual Wandering

  1. Vicki Huehner says:

    Hi Nancy, If I sat down and tried to write a perfect description of myself, I couldn’t do a better job than you’ve done for yourself in these few sentences: “…I have always been an intellectual wanderer. This is why I was terrible in school. I couldn’t focus on any one thing, any one subject, much less all of them. Instead I wandered. I looked out the window. I made up stories in my mind. I imagined things. And I read. And I am grateful that I still do those things….”
    Thank you again for your writing. It inspires me in a hundred ways.

  2. Joanne Corey says:

    I can appreciate what you are saying. My academic background is in music, not writing, but I find that I can’t just “listen to music” as most people do. It can’t be an in-the-background, commonplace experience; I need to be able to concentrate and reflect on how it is put together and performed and is working (or not) for me. I feel that way in church sometimes, too, because I spent years in both church music and liturgy planning.

    Now, in my fifties, I have resurrected a childhood love of writing poetry. I read poetry widely but haphazardly with several avenues that bring an array of poets and styles to me. Some of it I flat-out don’t understand, even with notes from the poet as an aid. Other poetry I admire, but know I could never emulate. I find that my style is not that of a “poet’s poet” but more of an accessible poet for people who think they could never understand poetry.

    • Nancy says:

      Joanne – I believe in accessible poetry and accessible prose. If, as writers, we’re not communicating, then what are we doing? Thank you for your comment.

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