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How Not to Paralyze Your #Writing: A Word on #Reading

April 5, 2017

 "Let us forgive ourselves for writing poems that aren't better than every other poem that has ever been written." - Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness

 

As writers and poets, we must read. If we do not read, we will be horrible writers. This is nearly a universal truth, no matter how many aspiring writers may say or wish otherwise. (I say "nearly" because there may be some prodigy somewhere who is the exception, but I have yet to meet this person.) 

 

Shitty readers make shitty writers.  

 

Sometimes, though, amazing readers make terrified writers. 

 

It is a fine line, and it's one the professional writer must master. You can't write a good story, book, or poem unless you immerse yourself in the written word. Immersing yourself too often, however, and too deeply, in the written words of masters will paralyze you.

 

You are not going to write as well as your favorite long-dead author. I'm sorry. You won't. And it's not for lack of skill, talent, or persistence. It's much simpler than that. 

 

You will never write as well as your favorite long-dead author, because you will never be the reader reading you. 

 

As the writer, your metaphors hold no surprise. Your turns of phrase are cliche. Your characters are too predictable. This does not change when you put on your "reader" hat. 

 

As the writer, when you put on your reader hat for your own work, it is so you can see more clearly your work's flaws. This is especially true when you have put away your manuscript for several months so that you may approach it with fresh eyes. You put it away so you can gain fresh insight into what isn't working. When you read other people's work—work you love—you put it away so you can experience once again, with fresh eyes, the thrill of the language, the structure, the dialogue that first entranced you. This is an important distinction. 

 

You will never experience your own work like that, because you never experienced that moment, as a reader, of entrancement. 

 

This does not mean that no one else will ever read your work and experience those moments. In fact, if you read often and write often, I'm certain someone—maybe many others—will. So do not let the masters deter you. 

 

Read often, but read widely.

 

Read good books and okay books and articles with so many grammatical errors you can barely get through them—if you find them interesting enough. Read newspaper pieces and poems. Read lists. 

 

Read to inform. Read to inspire. Read to gain a better sense of language and timing. And, yes, do read the masters. Do read the greats. Just, maybe, do it after you've finished your second draft. 

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