Reading as a Writer

Most (if not all) writers fall in love with the craft because they first fell in love with reading. And for any writer-to-be, I think reading often and widely is essential. It’s the most fun way to learn how to do it, and it’s also the best way to learn what you really want to write.

But when you start actually writing, and thinking about sharing that writing, suddenly reading is a hobby fraught with doubt.

There are some books out there that you read and think, even in that quiet voice in the back of your head, “Well, I could do this.” Whether or not that’s true, those books can be a great boost to your self-esteem. Now, I hasten to add that every book, no matter how “terrible,” did something right to connect with a reader—particularly, the agent and/or editor who published it. So I think a lot of books that look deceptively “bad” are just a simpler style, a different genre or type of book than you like (with different expectations), or are a bit of a fluke, I guess.

But those books aren’t the problem. The real problem is the books you read that make you think… “I’ll never be able to do this.”

It could be the lush descriptions and poetic prose. It could be the depth and breadth of characters. It could be the insanely imaginative twists in the plot. Or it could be just about anything—the length, the pacing, the genre, the number of books in the series, the invented vocabulary, the dialogue, the worldbuilding, the fandom… The point is that something, or several somethings, jump out at you and you feel a toxic combination of envy, inferiority, and doubt.

I’ve been feeling this way a bit lately, and this is what I tell myself:

  1. You do not know how many drafts a writer went through to get to what you see in front of you. There’s a quote by Steve Furtick: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” Perhaps that poetic prose came the tenth time they rewrote the scene. Maybe they only discovered that key aspect to the character on the fourth draft. Maybe the idea for the twist came only as they finished the first draft. You just never know…
  1. But even if the author says they only wrote one draft, or if every draft you write never achieves the same magnificence, the fact remains that every author—and every book—does things differently, and that’s okay. Some stories benefit from lavish description, but others cut to the core with straightforward prose that lays things bare. Think of Hemingway, lauded by academic institutions everywhere, with an incredibly unique and seemingly simple style. Some stories are best with crazy twists, but some tell a simple and emotional character story that comforts, entertains, or exposes through its somewhat familiar and archetypal plotline. Beyond the simple fact of what subsequent drafts can do, also keep in mind what you really want from your writing—and that there’s a reader for just about every book, even if that reader isn’t a critic or a teacher or your well-read friend.
  1. And every writer grows over their writing lifetime, and what you might be capable of now is only the beginning of your journey. I’m not saying you have to change or grow at all, but if you’re concerned about the quality of your work, that might just be something you have to develop through—with only time and practice and work to get you there. This one’s tough sometimes, because it requires a very patient attitude towards the arc of your own work, but once you can appreciate how you’ll naturally improve, you can just focus on doing the work now. Everyone grows at their own pace, though—I read something written by someone a couple years younger than me, and thought… oh, crap. But they’re on a different path than me, and I do believe that I’ll end up where I’m meant to be. Even if it’s in the bargain bin, if I’m lucky. 🙂

Like any artistic or creative endeavor, writing is fraught with self-consciousness and comparisons. And envy is a natural feeling, and nothing to be ashamed about. In fact, I often channel my envious magpie of a muse into new projects that confront what I like about someone else’s work with what I can do in my own unique way. That may result in some cliché or rip-off projects, but it’s all still writing and growing and learning.

The important thing is to keep writing, or drawing, or creating. You won’t end up like X, Y, or Z—you’ll end up like you, and who knows? Maybe someday someone will be enviously dying to be you.

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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6 Responses to Reading as a Writer

  1. This was an interesting post. You write lots of interesting ones, which is why I started following you XD My favorite writer is Cormac McCarthy. There will never be another one because his voice is so unique. In many ways he reminds me of a modern day Faulkner, but he’s different. I’ve never been jealous of McCarthy. I’ve never really been jealous of any writer. I’m rarely jealous of anyone for anything because there are so many things that you don’t know about the person. I’m 6’0″, tall, attractive, and smart. I have a doctorate and went to UC. Berkeley for undergrad. My sister is getting her doctorate at Harvard in theoretical physics. I’m nearly 30 and I still have people asking me if I’m a model. I actually eat lots of junkfood. I don’t exercise at all. But I have a connective tissue disease, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and live with debilitating pain. I would trade my unique qualities anyday for a chance to be normal. And I wonder if people that see me are jealous of the way I look. I hope not because it’s not my intent to make anyone jealous. But my point being, strangers have no idea what my life is actually like. So they might wish they looked like me, but if they lived one day in my body they wouldn’t want to be me. Maybe that’s why I’m not really jealous of anyone. I know that what I see, and what their life actually is may be different.

    Even if I was amazing, my voice would be different than McCarthy’s. His writing has greatly influenced my own. But I have my own voice. I read one of McCarthy’s earliest novels, and it is definitely not as good as the ones he wrote 40 years later. So if McCarthy can keep improving, anyone can. I think you are right. There are many different styles of writing, and they are all amazing in their own way. I was discussing something similar with a friend. What is the point of writing when there are already amazing writers. I’m not going to be another McCarthy. No one will, so what is the point? Why would anyone read what I’ve written when they could use their time to read McCarthy. I’m not sure I really have the answer to that. But I write because it makes me happy, so if other people enjoy it that’s cool.

    I’m actually a self-hater, and I struggle with crippling self-doubt. I know when I’m writing that I’m not McCarthy, and it takes me a very long time to write because I’m so aware of that fact. I had someone write me a 2,000 word flame on my fanfic story last week telling me among other things, how horrible my story was and how much I sucked as a writer. And no, he’s never written anything himself.. He was part of a group that has been bullying me for months, and so I just quit because I’m tired of it. But I thought about it, and I realized it didn’t matter whether my story was great or horrible. I didn’t write it for this guy who felt he deserved a fanfiction masterpiece. It was my first creative writing endeavor, and I started it five years ago. I wrote that story for myself and for my own happiness. And I guess that’s why I write anything. I’m not McCarthy and never claimed to be. There will always be haters no matter how good or bad I am, so I’m going to keep writing along with trying to improve because it makes me happy. Not some random troll on the internet who has nothing better to do than write 2,000 words of hate.

    • J. Sevick says:

      I love your attitude–I’m sorry you struggle with so much pain, but it sounds like it has made you a stronger and more understanding person.

      I too sometimes despair at other people’s talent, but I’m just glad I got to experience their work, and as you say, it’s ultimately about creating for yourself.

      That’s really horrible about that flame–I hope you don’t let it stop you! People can be so small and petty and waste their time dragging others down instead of building themselves up. Especially for fanfiction but really for all creative projects, it’s all about expressing yourself, experimenting with art and writing and creating, and having fun. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but when it’s just hate for the sake of hate, it’s really just sad. I’m sorry you had to deal with that, and I hope you find the strength to keep writing for yourself.

      Thank you for following me–and for the comment! 🙂

  2. Not to mention, in order to be published, it went through many rounds of editing by different people. That’s not all the author. Editors know and see things we don’t sometimes. I think it’s so important to read books especially in the genre you write, and sometimes it’s even good to feel inferior. It’s good to be challenged, to want to get better. As long as you do take it as a challenge to improve, instead of just giving up. But if you’re just going to give up writing that easily, maybe you shouldn’t have in the first place 🙂

    • J. Sevick says:

      Oh, I definitely agree. I think it’s just the struggle to find the patience to grow into that level of skill, when you feel like you can’t achieve it now. Instead of giving up or “waiting” until you’re somehow magically that good, you just have to keep working at it.

      But I am proof that you can “give up”… and then come back and be victorious (er, at drafting, at least)! You just never know what will happen. 🙂

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