Reading Pollutes Writing
by Noelle Sterne
We’ve all heard the venerable advice: to learn our craft and hone our skills, read, read, read. Granted, when we first start writing, reading other writers’ work can show us many approaches and techniques, enlarge our sense of unthinkable subjects, and give us models for daring to write what’s burning in us.
But with all this reading stoked up, there’s a time to stop.
Surprising? Probably. Heretical? Maybe. True? Unequivocally.
I don’t advocate this action—or inaction—out of peevishness, contrariness, or hatred of other writers. Rather, like many other authors, I’ve experienced the distressing effects of too much reading.
When you read others while you’re writing, you experience many conflicting and distressing reactions. First, you see a terrible disparity. You want to throw up your hands and throw out your computer. “I’ll never write like that!”
Case in point: A friend many miles away, with whom I’ve had a long writing-related correspondence, struggled with a memoir of his growing-up years in New England. I mightily encouraged him and fed him nuggets of advice.
Then he made a mistake. “I’ve been reading Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City. Now, that’s a memoir.” Across the miles, I could see his face droop. “Damn,” he continued, “I’m out of my league.” I whipped off a reply crammed like a care package with nourishing motivational chunks to counteract his reading contamination.
Second, despite such damaging judgments, you’re unable, like inhaling aerosol, to put their work down. You worship their descriptions, roll around their phrases in your head. You fester with envy that you didn’t think of those grand, pithy, sonorous, sagacious words or do what they’ve done, (usually) at their early ages.
The gap between your work and theirs is wider than that between a mother’s command and her child’s action. With a fervor greater than one’s yearning for mac-n-cheese on a diet, you wish you were those other writers.
Once you exhaust your fantasies that they’ll be stricken with a writhing voodoo plague, an insidious thing happens, the third result of reading while writing: you begin to write like them.
My friend read yet another memoir, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. And mused, “I’m a-thinkin’, am I lookin’ at a whole rewrite? Sorry for the dropping of the ‘g,’ but it’s ol’ Bob’s influence.” If he imitated Dylan in his letter to me, who knows what Minnesotan Dylanese surfaced in his New England memoir?
I’ve had similar spellbound experiences. As a yearning teenage writer, I read constantly, especially Ray Bradbury and Jane Austen. My stories revolved around super intelligent alien beings flirting coyly, sipping extraterrestrial tea over witty conversation, and always monitored by puzzled, insufficient humans manipulating complex machines.
Maybe my writing during those years could be excused as immaturity. But as an adult, to my writerly chagrin, I’ve also yielded to the reading infection. After reading Hemingway, I wrote a love story in gruff prose. After reading the eighteenth-century novel Tom Jones, I reported on a new office high-rise with stilted eighteenth-century flourishes. After luxuriating in two of Henry James’ novels, I produced an article on a 3K race in endless, half-page sentences.
Even if you haven’t become tainted with the imitation virus, heed the writing advice of others. Veteran teacher Leonard Bishop says in an essay imperatively titled “Don’t Read While Writing,” “The moment your involvement with professional writing becomes a commitment . . . transform the time you use reading into time to be used for added writing” (Dare to Be a Great Writer, pp. 286-287).
Why? Bishop likens the writer’s mind to an onion. We must constantly peel away the accumulated layers of other people’s views, outlooks, and styles to reach our own. Bishop explains, “Isolation from reading while writing . . . removal from the analysis of other people’s work, helps you peel away the sheaths” (p. 287).
Creative coach Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way is more ruthless. For writers suffering from blocks, she prescribes a severe remedy: total “reading deprivation.” No reading at all. Well, maybe except a phone text or two.
“For most blocked creatives,” she declares toughly, “reading is an addiction. We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own” (p. 87).
To extend Cameron’s metaphor, too often we abandon our own kitchens and rush to eat at others’ restaurants. But this avoidance gets us only intellectual bloating, a queasy feeling of wasted time, and the nausea of self-disgust. Stuffing ourselves with all that reading keeps us from discovering our own feelings, thoughts, and truths.
Reading deprivation forces us into ourselves. It “casts us,” Cameron says, “into . . . our own inner voice, the voice of our artist’s inspiration” (p. 87). To write anything true to ourselves, we must explore, delve inside, peel away those layers and, whatever our discomfort, stay there. Only this way will we reach our own expression in content and style.
When you continue to read others as you write, your production will often reflect them in a stale imitation. It won’t ring with your own stamp. When you finally turn away from reading and enter, even tentatively, into your own nurturing mental and physical silence, you are, Bishop assures us, “pushing into” your depths (p. 287).
Why are you writing, after all? Aside from the superficials—the hoped-for money, recognition, non-cubicle lifestyle—isn’t it your voice you crave to appear on the page? Isn’t your fondest desire to say something unique, through the lens of your most purified perceptions, to develop the voice that’s quintessentially yours to express?
Even if you write about the most common, overworked subject, no one else has experienced what you have or filtered the experience through your eyes and mind. No one else has your voice or your core.
Maybe we’re afraid of going into our depths because we think we’ll discover only emptiness, or worse, inanity. Or a pit of clichés, like old snakes thrashing fiercely to get to the top of page. Or that we’re only shells of previous readings, shadows of other writers’ phrases wafting through space like ghost ships. Maybe, worst of all, we fear we have nothing to say.
We must silence all virtuous instruction, external influences, stimulations, and admirations. We must trust in our own richness and inexhaustibility to discern what’s inside and bring it out.
So go quiet, with no reading distractions. Go deep into your experiences—the ones you dread and the ones you treasure. Let them surface.
The deeper you go, the more courage you’ll gain and strength you’ll find to transfer your discoveries to the page. As you keep writing, you’ll marvel at the unearthing of a you whom you didn’t know, a you who offers worlds more to discover and transmute for others. And maybe to your shock, you’ll find that you even like what you see and write.
Within you are fertile worlds hardly plumbed. They’re humbling, exciting, and infinitely accessible. They’ll show you what you’re meant to write. You’ll find your own splash of freshness on the world, your power. So stop the pollution of reading others, and instead listen inside—and begin.
Noelle publishes widely in print and online venues, with a current column in Coffeehouse for Writers. Her Ph.D. from Columbia University enables her to help doctoral candidates complete their dissertations (finally). In Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), Noelle guides readers to reach their dreams and lifelong yearnings. Please visit trustyourlifenow.com.