I’ve brought this topic forward a bit because of something that happened recently. For most of the last year I haven’t been reading any fiction and then last week I was about to take a bath (sorry for the intimacy) which I normally always read in, but I couldn’t face taking any of the normal papers or magazines, I really fancied reading a book, something I haven’t felt like for ages. So I took one from my high ‘to-do’ pile and it happened to be ‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis. I settled in and moved the soap (sorry, stop it) and something like twenty minutes later I had read without interruption and was really, really, really enjoying it...then I panicked, threw it away from me and haven’t picked it up since. The reasons why are what I will talk about in this blog.
I’ll start by saying I have always been a reader, since I can remember I have loved books and have gone through the usual progression of genres through my primary and secondary school days, to college, and in my twenties I studied a Literature degree with the Open University so obviously a lot of wide ranging reading there. Not only have I always loved reading but I have always valued it and recommended it, I think it is important to a general education and to keeping people stimulated in adult life, I believe it helps with a lot of skills and the firing of imagination and should be a life long hobby. So I should say that I haven’t stopped loving reading and I haven’t stopped valuing reading. In fact, I am angry at stopping because at the time when I should be reading the most, I’m not! Now that I have started writing, the importance of maintaining and improving my vocabulary is incredibly important, recognizing and manipulating styles, testing my understanding of narrative and voice and so on is vital.
Stopping came out of fear. I had finished my first draft of my first story and I was excited about it, for many years I had been working towards getting to this point of focus and here I was. Then a strange thing happened to me that had never happened before, I started to detest reading. I mean I actually hated it. I couldn’t bear to read anything by anyone else and I think I can explain it now.
Every word I read by someone else I scrutinized for minutes:
Why had they chosen that word? Why had they structured the sentence in that manner? Why had they chosen first or third person? How had they created those characters? How long had they taken to write this? Why was this so famous? Why was this so rated? Did everyone love or hate this?
Then the self-doubt started:
To be able to write like this they must be a genius. I bet they were a naturally gifted writer that could produce ten thousand words of perfect prose every day. They must have such high intelligence to think this up.
I’ll never be able to write like they can. I’m not good enough to be amongst them. Who am I kidding? It would take me years to finish a novel and it would never be as good as this. There’s no point. I can’t think up stuff this complicated. I haven’t anything as interesting as this in my brain. They are too knowledgeable.
And then the fear:
If I read any more of this I’m just going to end up copying it! I’m going to end up sounding exactly like this person. I’m going to copy their style. I’m going to copy their characters. If I like a metaphor they use will I subconsciously use it myself? If I like a description will it creep into my writing? I’m not going to be able to think of anything original. I’m going to be labeled a fraud. Without realizing I’m just going to rewrite their story.
So instead of confronting those issues and working through them I just stopped. Now the thing is, I love reading as I have said and I still believe that being well read is hugely important but I am able now to tell myself that being impressed with something does not mean you are not capable of doing something similar. The same goes for anything doesn’t it, your job, sports, relationships, money, it goes on and on. Anything that other people are successful with seems daunting. It’s always other people that make it…other people start companies not me, other people get married not me, other people have kids not me, other people get the promotion not me, other people have the luck not me, other people win the lottery not me (now that ones universal for sure) but of course we all know that isn’t true.
Bringing it back to reading, how lucky that I can count reading as something enjoyable and educational. How lucky am I that I can sit down for two hours with a book and not just enjoy it for pleasure but it can help me with my own writing, it benefits me, it improves me…how many things like that are there? (Don’t say drinking and smoking!)
There are legitimate fears that you have to be careful with. I need to write and I need to spend a lot of time devoted to writing, so I can’t expect to be able to have the same amount of free time I once had. I can’t go out every night and expect to get my next story finished. And reading takes up a lot of time, so you have to be honest and say that I can’t spend as much time as I would like doing other enjoyable things and one of those is reading, however that is not a reason to give up! I need to get reading again and not have the fears I have described associated with it. I need to accept that there are issues to do with being influenced by others but control that. I have to accept that the beauty of other peoples work can be enjoyed without the insecurity. That’s what happened with Lucky Jim. I loved it from the first page, I associated with it, I wanted to be the person who wrote it…doesn’t everybody! If you have read Midnights Children I hope you will agree with me that it takes a one off individual brilliant mind to be able to write like that. That doesn’t mean no one else has the right to try.
I will finish Lucky Jim at some point. I will make progress on the ever-growing ‘to-do’ pile of books that is near ceiling height. I will enjoy them for what they are and carry on experiencing as much as I can without the fear that I am not worthy to be amongst those people that contribute to the world rather than just take from it.
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