AND THESE ARE MY DUMB EXCUSES WHY
We’ve all been guilty of believing dumb things at one point or another, and for a long time I held a particularly dumb idea of my own – I eschewed reading fiction. I still read, of course, devouring books whenever I could, but very few novels. I didn’t want to read anybody else’s narratives, and I managed to justify my avoidance with a number of dumb excuses why.
My first excuse, I believed wholeheartedly – albeit foolishly. As a naive young writer, I held the unfounded belief that reading other writer’s words would affect my own; I feared it would somehow alter my style. I hadn’t yet found my own voice, and the last thing I wanted was it sounding like another’s.
Throughout my life, I’ve said to people to close to me (though mostly justifying it to myself) that I hadn’t read this latest, or that best selling or those old staples because, I wouldn’t want to confuse my prose, with theirs.
When I was younger, I ate books – I read everything by Tom Clancy. Why? – because I was a teenage boy, and I was yet to understand the hyper-militarism and cringe-worthy patriotism that rolled like M1A1 Abrams battle tank across every all-American page.
These were the best reading years of my life, and that was what I filled my head with? And when I wrote, I wrote like Tom Clancy. The first novel I completed was little more than a techno-political fan fiction, which since writing, have never looked at again.
My second excuse was very personal. It was an excuse I told only to myself, and it came from a heady mixture of ego and insecurity.
Often, when reading fiction, it would fester a powerful self-doubt. As an aspiring author, you have more appreciation of act of writing than most readers would. You understand the labour that has gone into each sentence, what care, caution and agonising mediation that built every paragraph.
When I read a novel, I found myself deciphering and discerning, analysing and scrutinising – but enjoying it? Not as much.
I spent more time dissecting the motivations of the authors themselves, more than I spent on their characters. When I first read Heart of Darkness I expended less time on the wistful mystery of Kurtz than I did on Josef Conrad’s grand command of his third language. How hard was it for him to not only learn English, but master and wrap his new tongue into perfect tales? I can barely do that and English is my first and only language. That, to me, was more interesting than a story about a tricky boat trip.
Now, I’ve been a bartender for all my adult life. For me, going to a bar for a drink, is a very different experience than it is for those who aren’t in my line of work. I’ll sit on a stool, nursing a pot of beer, and while my companions ponder life, I’ll be watching the door, and the tables, and the chairs, the floor, the glass windows, the outside, to the very glass of beer I’ve been served, and everything else in between.
That was how reading fiction seemed to me. Not in a bratty, judgmental way, but as involuntary professional observance, that comes with years of intimate involvement within the craft. What should be a pleasure, became almost like a chore, and reading novels appeared, at times, no different to work. But unlike bartending, I felt, with examined word, and every studied sentence, that I was completely unworthy for the job. I knew what I was doing behind the bar, yet behind the cover of a good novel, I was in way over my head.
When I turned twenty-five, I was consumed by a voracious thirst for knowledge. I wanted to learn anything I could, and mostly, I wanted to know everything there was to know. Therefore, I read non-fiction: I read reference books, newspapers, essays, articles, biographies, memoirs, almanacs, encyclopaedias, the atlas and often at times, the phone book as well. But I seldom read fiction. I’d tell my friends I actually preferred to read non-fiction, and when they asked why I shared my third stupid line, I gave my Jurassic Park excuse.
You see, I never read the tale about that dino-Disneyland. Yet when I was little, (about the time the book and movie were in vogue) I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I still have the encyclopaedia I read as a child – The Complete Book of the Dinosaur, by Joseph Wallace. Tough reading for a five year old, but it featured many colourful pictures, and that elaborate artwork, coupled with the heavy language I didn’t yet know, let my imagination flow. To what I saw in those renditions, and what words I couldn’t understand, I applied my own narrative. In that world of swirling knowledge and facts my mind was free to create my very own story.
When Jurassic Park was released, I never wanted a copy. I felt I’d built a dinosaur world of my own that I didn’t want ruined by the perspective of Michael Crichton. What if, one day I wanted to write a book about dinosaurs? If I read his book, I’d have to slip into his fantasy – I’d have to buy into his fiction. But, when I read non-fiction my narrative was king. Truth is mightier than fantasy, I’d hear myself lie – why accept someone else’s imagination, when I can create my own? I’d ask back to my inquirers, and so many would stupidly agree with my reasoning.
My fourth excuse – but not nearly my last – was the laziest and most lackluster of all, and certainly, my worst. Though as shameful as it was, it is most common I’ve heard from others. This excuse is not solely my own, and one to which, I’m sure we can all relate.“I can’t find the time” – we’ve each said before, and not just about books. This excuse is by far the worst, and not because of its stupidity, but because of its truth.
For most of us, if we were offered a free trip to (insert preferred destination here) tomorrow, we wouldn’t be able to go. We have jobs, families, lives, money worries, televisions to watch, video games to beat, and wine to drink – it’s hard to make time, even for the best things in life.
My most preferred time to read fiction is when I’m alone, and have time to enjoy it – so almost never. I get a lot of reading done on holiday – holidays I have no time for. If I do get the chance to crawl into bed with a book, or sprawl in silence on the couch at home, I often fall asleep. Not out of boredom or frustration or as critique of the book I’m reading, but because if I get this opportunity, it means that I am relaxed. And in a world of eternal distractions, peace so seldom exists, when the occasion comes along, or I’m lucky enough to get away, my mind just can’t wait to rest. At home, I have piles of books I should be reading. I am not in need of good material, I am in need of good time.
And how do you take a holiday? You plan it. You make time. So it should be for reading. I should be making time, creating those moments to switch off my worries, I’m not making time to unwind. And what better way than with a novel? A good book is meditation, and a great book, is nirvana. This is the way reading should be.
But it’s more than that, it would have to be a lifestyle shift. I must read whenever I can. Not only when I’m comfortable but when I’m less comfortable too. For a week I monitored my distractions, I noticed social media wasn’t getting any more or less interesting, and every new film could wait, I cut down on my binging of television and gave my game system a much deserved break.
I turned my novels into audio books and listened to them on the train. I took a book with me wherever I went, a novella – a paperback – something concealable, something that fit in my pocket. I went to bed earlier and woke up just the same. I made time that I never knew existed, and integrated reading into my life.
I still read non-fiction, but the balance had completely changed. Whenever I swapped and went back to true life, I’d consider my third stupid excuse, and just how wrong I was. I bought myself a copy of Jurassic Park and couldn’t wait to read it. Throughout its pages I’d hear my voice repeating my excuse, I must have had a head so fat and pompous it could have been President. The only thing I managed to achieve with that elaborately ridiculous rational was to deny myself a fantastic book, and a writer of tremendous merit. The only person I actually hindered was myself, and my story about dinosaurs (if I ever wrote one) would’ve surely suffered. Those I shared my excuse with did me no favours by not firmly saying: “That’s the biggest load of arrogant shit I’ve ever heard, have fun in your fantasy land, while the rest of us are out here reading great books.”
I noticed, when I changed to fiction, my lust for learning never went away. I learned quite quickly, that reading fiction was education unto itself. I learned about sentence structure, character development, plot momentum, and prose, structure, depth and much more. There were so many lessons to be learned from literature, I despised myself for not realising sooner.
I also noticed that the more I read, the less I worried. The bubbling pool of doubt in my stomach slowly started to subside; as did all the credibility I gave to my second excuse. Although I identified that this excuse was merely a knee jerk reaction to insecurity and doubt, I recognised that is was a good thing. This is how we learn. This is how you grow. We wouldn’t be writers if we didn’t do this. And rather than focusing on the exhaustion of analysis, recognise the wealth of knowledge you’ve just learned.
Though from time to time I let myself go, and read like a reader, part of learning about great writing is learning how to enjoy it. After all, I still am a bartender, and I still enjoy going for drink. I still recognise the value of my insecurity as every writer out there put me to shame, and the great ones always made me shudder with the actualisation of inevitable failure.
But my first excuse, I’ll tell you, that was the most stupid of all. To worry you may confuse your style with Dickens, Austin, Thompson or Rand presumes I had the ability to write like these giants to begin with. I realised (quite quickly, once reading a few classics), if my writing, even in the slightest degree, resembled any of these literary juggernauts, I’d be very ok with that.
The truth is, your style comes from you. You don’t really get to choose it. It is a composite of everything you’ve learned, read and experienced. So read the best. Read the most. Give your voice all the possible wealth and depth it can loot from and your prose will improve.
You’ll never grow your own style without influence. If all a writer reads are reference books, then their stories will sound like dictionaries. As too, if all a writer reads is one author, than their prose will mimic their source. It is vital to read, and read broadly, read wide and far, read everything and more. Gather your inspirations from all walks of expression, learn your aspirations from all kinds of life, and understand your medium through all kinds of eyes.
I used to say, it doesn’t what you read, so long as you read. That’s fine advice, for a non-writer. But for a budding author, that advice alone, doesn’t suffice. We should read our genres, and read our peers, for how can we expect them to do the same for us? And how can we be expected to grow? Originality comes from a deep understanding of what’s been done before, and growth in skill is always achieved on the back of that which already exists.
A wise someone once said that you must read more than you write, and for a long time I was guilty of not adhering to this and making stupid reasons why. I neglected my peers, but it’s time I stopped ignoring my idols. It’s time I made up for lost words, and there can be no more excuses.
. . .
For some more thoughts, meet me