The Worst Advice

Woman reading a bookThere was one thing that used to drive me nuts about my old job in Vermont. For two years, I worked for the novelist John Irving as his “literary assistant.” The job mostly consisted of transcribing the handwritten pages of the novel and screenplays he was working on, but there was also light filing, emailing, scheduling, trip planning, and errand-running to do—typical office-type chores that I neither particularly looked forward to nor really minded taking care of. I also opened his fan mail and typed up his responses to those letters. This task could be a lot of fun, especially when the letters were from young readers. I could imagine my high school self feeling compelled to write to John after having read The World According to Garp for the first time (something I never actually did). Letters from teenagers who’d just finished A Prayer for Owen Meany or kids who wanted to know why John had left certain parts out of his adapted screenplay for The Cider House Rules were sweet and enthusiastic, full of a guilelessness the letters from adults rarely possessed.

A good percentage of those young letter-writers, of course, wanted advice from John about how to be a writer. This is what drove me nuts—not the request for advice, but John’s response. He’d offer pretty typical words of wisdom (write as much as you can, write about what interests you). But, more often than not, he’d throw in one last recommendation, which boiled down to: Read everything you can now because when you become a writer, you won’t have time to read.

Arrghh! What?! This is the piece of advice that would send me up the wall. What kind of maniac tells kids to read now because writers don’t read? Also, it was a bald-faced lie: John read. I’d seen evidence of it. Hell, I’d picked up novels from the local bookshop for him, and I kept his magazine subscriptions current, and I’d had conversations with him about things he was reading!

And while I wasn’t a successful, published novelist whose schedule was filled with speaking engagements and book tours and research trips, I was still technically also a writer—I was working on my first novel at the time—and I read. I read a lot. On one hand, I had the time; I was far away from family and friends and lived in a very quiet town, so I filled the hours by reading, managing to get through 85 books in two years. On the other hand, I had arguably less time than John, considering I was not only chipping away at my own book but working a semi-full-time job, plus picking up ten to twenty hours a week waiting tables at a local restaurant. And I still managed to read, Irving.

It took two more years after my tenure as John’s assistant, but eventually I finished my novel—just this February, in fact. As a self-imposed deadline loomed during those last few months of writing, everything that wasn’t novel-related fell by the wayside, especially extracurricular reading. “The problem with writing your own book is you stop reading other people’s books,” I grumbled on Librarything, where I keep a record of what I read every year. That was in May, a full three months after I’d finished writing; by this time, I was revising my manuscript. Still, I figured my illiteracy was a result of the concentrated effort I was putting forth: If I wasn’t cramming to get revisions done by a certain time and using all my free hours to revise, I would have taken some time to read.

Sure enough, once revisions of my own book were finished and I entered the “wait and see” phase of trying to get something published, I started reading again. See, I mentally chided my former employer as I turned a page of Kelly Braffet’s Save Yourself. You can too be a writer and still read plenty!

But something strange was happening when I read now. My eyes continued to skim through sentences, and words seemed be registering in my head, but my brain wasn’t processing the information. Instead, my gray matter had absconded with the grain of an idea and was batting it around like a kitten with a ball of twine. While I was ostensibly following the plot some other writer had developed, really I was gnawing on the tender bones of my own story ideas.

I’d refocus and try again. Digest two or three pages—sometimes I managed as many as five!—then find that my mind had wandered once more. After a while, I’d give up, close the book, and sit, thinking instead of reading.

I decided once I started a new project, this would stop. I’d treat my brain like a toddler: give it something fun to do, let it run around till it wore itself out, then take advantage of its mellowed state to get some reading done. I started a short story, then did some free-writing, played around with what I thought might be something longer. But my toddler-brain was indefatigable. It couldn’t settle down; I told it that reading time was quiet time, and it laughed in my face and went chasing after a squirrel.

What’s more, it wasn’t just my reading that suffered. I’d get through an entire podcast episode before realizing I had no idea what I’d just listened to because I’d started piecing together the bits of plot that were nibbling at me. I missed scenes of my favorite television shows because I’d started thinking about how to get through a conflict between characters.

But reading was the worst, especially if I was trying to read something good. Every sentence that dazzled me made my fingers itch for my keyboard; every passage of brilliant prose had me squirming, desperate to get to my desk. Why, why, why was I reading someone else’s writing when I ought to be working on my own?

This, I now realize, might have been what John meant when he told young writers to get all their reading done early. It’s not that there wouldn’t be time to read once they started filling their days with their own writing. It’s that when you make writing a significant part of your life, you develop an itch that won’t go away, no matter how often or hard you scratch it. You can soothe the itch for awhile—a couple hours at your laptop or with your pen in hand acts as a balm—but pretty soon the itch comes back.

Picking up a good novel or short story becomes akin to walking through a patch of poison ivy. You see the end result of the hours another writer has spent toiling over words, and no matter how frustrating your time at your desk was that day, you want to go back because the thing you’re reading is proof that you can get there—you can create something worth reading. Now that I've finished writing my own book, writing feels more than ever like a drug. Someone else’s words trigger the memory of the high I used to feel after a good day’s work, when the words snapped together like magnets and I actually seemed capable of writing exactly what I wanted to write. If I could feel that way again—if I could be writing—why would I want to do anything else?

So, in his way, John was right. If you write, you can’t read. I have been reading, lately. I just finished The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett, and before that I read Stephen King’s new book, and I’m about to start a novel by Roxanne Gay called An Untamed State. I’ve even been paying attention to what I’ve read. But I haven’t been writing. I took an unplanned two-week hiatus from this blog, and I haven’t been toying around with any fiction. I’m in a dormant period, I suppose—letting the field lay fallow so the soil can become rich again. So something can grow again. I like to think that when the next good idea catches hold and I’m waking every morning eager to get back to my desk, I’ll still manage to sit down with a good book once in a while—even if I can only manage a few pages before I realize I’d rather be writing.