Writer vs. Reader

Truman Capote 1981 Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989 ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AR00212

Here’s the deal, readers. 

I have read. I have a fucking masters in literature. And before that? A bachelor’s in literature. I’ve written hundreds of papers about literature, a masters thesis, papers for academic conferences and I’ve taught literature. I don’t have a PhD in literature because, honestly, at that point it’s literary criticism and I don’t see the point of that. Enough was enough for the MA and it would have cost me $28k and three years of my life to pursue something that wouldn’t have improved my chances to get a good job.

There’s a moment in life when that is the important consideration. 

In 1981 a friend gave me a book of Chinese poetry and inscribed it saying, “Maybe this is something you HAVEN’T read.” And I hadn’t, but I did and found the most informative poem of my life. It’s “Don’t Go Out of that Door” by Li ho.

In the article I linked to my earlier post today is a pretty funny statement. I’ll quote it here.

Jean-Claude Carrière: There are books on our shelves we haven’t read and doubtless never will, that each of us has probably put to one side in the belief that we will read them later on, perhaps even in another life. The terrible grief of the dying as they realise their last hour is upon them and they still haven’t read Proust.”

I’ve read Proust. Heaven help me, but I have. That’s WHY I found Carriére’s statement so funny. How did I find Proust? University library, oh, you mean, well honestly, how would you know you died? Proust’s prose is as slow as death.

Stream of tedium.

There are important questions writers need to answer about themselves that no reader has to think about, most important (to me) is, “Is this the way I WANT to write?” You have to read your own work with the eyes of a WRITER to answer that question. 

There was a day, a moment, when that hit home. I was on a blind date some 10 years ago. I had driven to the Panikin in La Jolla to meet a man with whom I’d corresponded online (yes, a dating site, OKC). I took a draft of Martin of Gfenn with me. Unfortunately for him? For both of us? He was late. By the time he arrived, I was immersed in my manuscript and sickened by it. Every irrelevant motion of Martin’s life was expounded in laborious detail, almost “Martin turned right, and walked down the corridor putting one foot in front of the other, left right left right left right left right left right until he reached the refectory at which point he stopped putting one foot in front of the other and stood still thinking about whether he should put his right or his left foot over the threshold.”

Almost like that. The book (at that time) was 520 manuscript pages long. Once I’d read it like a writer, it was about half that. 

Seriously. Do you, as a reader, need to realize anything like that in YOUR writing and go, “Fuck, this is so bad, I want to die”? You might react to a book that way, but it won’t be YOUR book.

I never had to think that thought back when I was a reader. I was unaware that writers make choices about who they are in a paragraph or sentence or (yeah, sometimes it’s this small) word. Why? Oh baby, let me tell you. 

Words have sounds and implications. They have the power to resound, imply, and allude. A word can destroy a sentence and, like falling dominoes, take the paragraph with it.

I was facing a really poorly written novel (mine) with a good story and what could I do about it?

I’d written it not as a writer, but as a reader thinking of the story. A writer has to think about conveying the story so the reader can surrender, not noticing the conveyance, feeling only that the world in which he or she momentarily exists is real. A writer has to provide an experience. The reader has to be able to enter the words, the sentences, the paragraphs and forget they’re there.

It was at that moment — on that blind date — that I became a writer not a reader. As for the date, it went like this.

“What’s that?”
“My novel. It’s so bad. I don’t know what to do.”
“Do you want a coffee?”
“I think I have to go home.”

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

Truman Capote


Luckily, I found a teacher — or he came to me in my sleep. I dreamed of Truman Capote and he told me I was a good writer. I wasn’t a good writer. I was shit. I didn’t know what to do, but here was Capote appearing repeatedly in my dreams and here I was. 

I read everything Capote wrote and I read it not as a reader, but as a writer. ❤

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