Reading To Write

Reading Zadie Smith’s essays on authors like Nabokov and Eliot and Kafka, I am plagued by a question that, as an aspiring writer, I am a bit embarrassed by. And yes, I do call myself an ‘aspiring writer’, not because I haven’t written or I have just started writing, but more because I haven’t written the things that I want to that would enable me, at least in my head, to consider myself an established writer. Like an actual book. Anyway, I distract easily. The question that that bothers me, when it makes its distant presence felt is: do I really want to read the books she references to get an element of context? Perhaps my discomfort stems from the answer that I already have, which is ‘no’. Is it wrong to be content with merely reading her thoughts without the desire to read those authors’ writing and discovering that what she sees, both positively and negatively, is beyond me? There is little logic, and an over dependence on my ‘gut’, in deciding what I am going to read.

As an 18-year old, I spent a year in a small town in the north of Germany called Oldenburg at a time when very few people spoke English and it is near impossible to find any types of literature in languages other than German. The university had a ‘foreign language’ library which was about a 20-minute bicycle ride from the centre of town. The English section had around 8 long shelves of books and there was a time when I was probably there every week, walking up and down, pulling books of the shelf, reading the sleeve and then putting them back. I would eventually choose a book or two, go home, read those and, when returning them, go through the whole process again. With the limited offering, I would pick up the same books and, every now and then, I would take out a book that I had looked at multiple times because, this time, There was something appealing about it, this time.

What are often considered the classics are heavy books, in terms of language and thought and I am rarely in the head space to tackle them. It took me three years, in high school, to read Tolstoy’s War And Peace, starting it several times before eventually getting to the end. I cannot tell you much about it now, so many years later, but, when I hear other writers talk of it, I often wonder whether I read the same book. Hence, my comfort with rather reading Zadie Smith’s writing on similar literature, which, I do recognise is a cop, kind of crib notes for literary classics.

In a way, it is similar to lingering on the edges of other literary and social spaces where, if one hasn’t read any Fanon, for example, you continue to be on the edges, never quite belonging. And are perceived as not intellectual enough? Is my excessive willingness to share the fact that I read Malcolm X’s autobiography at the age of 11/12 a manifestation of this inherent wish to be accepted within certain spaces?

Having dabbled in the poetry/spoken word space in Joburg for a bit, I have sat down around enough tables where poets, writers and other activists talked up the works of people like Dambudzo Marechera, Chinua Achebe, Bessie Head, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, etc. But, it also often feels like a performance of sorts where who you have read validates your intellectualism and serves a flag to be planted to reserve your space within the discourse. I have read Baldwin, Alex La Guma, the aforementioned Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, amongst others. I feel in love with Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as well as the poetry of Amiri Baraka and Don Mattera as a teenager but all of this was because they were available on the shelves of my father’s library as well as because I enjoyed the writing. They were never symbols to position myself. Perhaps that is my downfall.

Reading to become a better writer is necessary but what if one is a reader that does not absorb ever word or get distracted by each turn of phrase but rather the elements that either reinforce one’s ideas or take the reader on a journey that focuses on the destination of that particular piece of writing? Even if the end is merely another station, in another town, that one needs to explore before carrying on? It’s all very complicated. But, perhaps that is the purpose. Reading as an act of shining a light on the shadows in one’s own thinking in a way that is introspective and outwardly looking, at the same time. To write thoughts on a book about writing feels somewhat pretentious and a tad tedious, but this is what I am doing.

I find myself in a weird space. For a couple of years now, during a period when I have repeatedly been defined as, and have defined myself as, a writer (in contradiction to what I wrote earlier), I have grappled with the quality of my own writing, probably because most of the writing what I have written has been for magazine. I believe, and have constantly peddled, the idea that ‘writing is a muscle.’ A muscle that needs to be constantly and regularly flexed to build strength. As Colin Nissan, writer for spaces like The New Yorker, The New York Times, etc, so wonderfully put it, “Writing is a muscle. Smaller than a hamstring and slightly bigger than a bicep, and it needs to be exercised to get stronger. Think of your words as reps, your paragraphs as sets, your pages as daily workouts (The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do).”

There are two parts to this. Firstly, there is the craft. Finding new ways, and new words, to express. Navigating the labyrinth that is language and its rules — whichever language you write in — and finding ways to put the puzzle pieces that are words together in such as way that you are able to best communicate whatever it is you want to share. And then, secondly, understanding that each genre has its own ’tricks of the trade’. Writing for a magazine is very different from writing poems from writing for newspaper from writing press releases from writing proposals, the list goes on relentlessly. Which muscle do I work on and what do I read to better understand that muscle.

Am I making sense?

Perhaps the fear is that, in reading what many consider Greats in writing, I won’t grasp the words beyond the words on the page.