DON’T READ THIS

Posted: October 10, 2010 in Uncategorized
…which is silly, of course, why would I be sitting here typing this if I didn’t want you to read it?

That said, I must warn you: I fully expect at least 98% percent of those who read this to vehemently disagree with the content. Which is fine, I mean, this is a blog, not a popularity contest, I’ve every right to say whatever’s on my mind…although in this case, like it or hate it, I really do hope to hear from you, especially those who don’t damn me outright but take a moment to think about my theory.

Actually it’s not even a theory, or at least not one I’m sure I agree with. It flies in the face of what most of us have been taught or heard all our lives. And truthfully I’m not really confident about how I feel about this conundrum myself. All I know is I’m not comfortable with it. Also I’ve got writer friends out there I don’t wish to piss off (Harlan, I can feel you breathing down my neck). Most of all, virtually every time I’ve done an interview or given advice to a new writer, I’ve offered exactly the OPPOSITE advise about what I’m talking about here. Which, in a nutshell, is reading.

From grade school on I read a lot. I mean, a LOT. Libraries and bookstores were my second home no matter what town my dad’s job moved us to. I also drew a lot. I mean a LOT. I enjoyed sports, naturally athletic (in the genes) but there was nothing I preferred more, including TV, than curling up with a good book or drawing pictures, usually my version of space comics. Things began to change, though, by college. Like everyone one at that age I learned there was a lot more out there than popular fiction and comics and the average movie. So I became more selective at libraries and news stands, moving from the more “colorful” fodder of thrillers to the more “important” works of literature, namely the classics. I also made myself switch from commercial art at college to major in Fine Art. It wasn’t always fun. Sometimes it was downright wretched. Some classic literature and many periods of historical art I could barely wade through. Yet I’m glad I did. I was definitely broadening my horizons whether I knew it or not. At some point I realized a book by Hemngway or a painting by Monet could be both mind-expanding AND enjoyable. Naturally, I began to write like Hemingway (who didn’t?) and paint like Monet (or ape him, anyway). These were my new heroes. Science fiction and comic books were hooey. I had arrived! Right. Eventually I learned that the line between Fine Art and Popular Art was not so distinct as it had seemed, but that’s another story.

After I’d sold my first short stories and illustrations to NY publishers I stumbled across a book by author Dean Koontz on How To Write and Sell Fiction. Koontz would eventually write a later, re-edited edition of this same book in which he disagreed with nearly everything he’d said in the first volume, but  remained resolute concerning one thing; if you’re going to be a published author you MUST do two things: read a lot and write a lot. It seemed like good advice–I was pretty much doing it anyway–yet a strange niggling began picking at the back of my mind…something I couldn’t quite put my synapses on.

A dozen or so published books later, I came across a similar how-to,biographical book by author Stephen King: ON WRITING. Both King’s and Koontz’s books bore many similarities including a toolbox metaphor for what it takes to “build” a story or novel. However, where Koontz insisted a new writer must pay close attention to both the current reading market and climate including having a savvy marketing plan as well as giving full due to that horror of horrors PLOTTING, King gave marketing a cursory paragraph or two and suggested plotting was not only unnecessary but often actually got in the way of good writing. “Write anything you want,” he said. But, again, both authors agreed vehemently on one important axiom: read a lot and write a lot. It was not only the best way, it was the ONLY WAY. And once again that strange niggling itched at my cortex. 

Were reading a lot and writing a lot really irrefutable bedfellows? I wondered.

Three incidents in my life made me wonder more–and were doubtless the source of that niggling itch.

Now, remember, I already mentioned I read a lot of “classic” books in school and studied tons of “classic” art, much of it more work that enjoyment.

The first incident occurred when driving the streets of Manhattan with fellow artist Jeffery Jones (no relation). I was behind the wheel, Jeff gazing out the passenger window. “Don’t look at that, Bruce!” he suddenly cried. I followed his gaze to a bland looking billboard, an ad about baby powder or something including an illo of a baby. Jeff histrionically covered his eyes with his palm. “It’s bad art! If you look at stuff like that your mind will absorb it and sooner or later it might come out in your own art!” There was an air of the frivolous in his tone but behind it I sensed an undercurrent of sincerity…even fear. Anyway, it rolled around in my mind all that afternoon, becoming less and less frivolous. It still haunts me to this day.

The second incident was during a lecture by author Ray Bradbury. He talked about a lot of things, but toward the end he leaned earnestly across the podium and said (paraphrasing a bit here) “When you’re a young writer you should read a lot; nobody will have to tell you this because if your really want to write you’ll already love the writing of others, in fact, you’ll downright imitate their style, which is a natural and important part of growth and to be expected. But! There comes a time during early adulthood when you must stop all this reading, put the books away, find you own voice and stick to it. Write, write, write–not read, read, read. You’re out of school now–time to work!”

Both of those incidents remain etched indelibly in my mind. Of course, with a mind like mine, it’s crowed with a lot of other etched incidents of no value whatsoever, like how Lick-M-Aide tasted when I was twelve. But my quandary is this: can constant eclectic reading not only be a waste of precious time but, more heinously, DILUTE and cause HARM to your own work? Like the incident with Jeff, it sounds pretty silly at first, I mean, we’re the masters of our own ships, right? Right? Maybe. But ships and brains are not the same thing.

The third incident is really a kind of ongoing thing. I MADE myself look at a lot of classic art in my youth, things I really pretty much detested–but it was offset by my love for the French Impressionists, the Pre-Raphs, the Ingres, and others. By the same token, even though I’m sure all of us have picked up a novel that is so badly written or plotted we finally give up halfway in, we have on hand those that inspire us. Yet more and more I turn to those same writers that so impressed me the first time, like (for me) Buell, Updike, Hemingway, Mitchell Smith, William Goldman, Hank Searls and others–while turning further away from those authors–many of them VERY popular by the way–who I find a drudgery to endure. Reading, like writing, can be many things to many people, but ultimately it’s supposed to be enjoyable, right?

I can hear the clamor of dissension even as I finish this: “You’re being an elitist, Jones!” “You’re being myopic!” And maybe worst of all: “You’re just being lazy!” 

Except I’m not. I don’t really agree with Bradbury’s theory, though I hear the ring of truth in it. I still try new authors all the time, and while I don’t find enough that I enjoy for the good of my soul, every now and then…yeah!

I DO believe in Jeff Jones’ theory, though: fear of absorbing the bad along with the good, filling the mind with tepid matter–that it may indeed be better to study or read nothing at all than anything bad …and God only knows there’s a plethora of bad stuff out there.

So what do you think?
Give me your comments, call me a jerk, burn me in effigy, I don’t care, I’m honestly interested in your own experiences with this thing.

In any case, thanks for letting me waste your time!

Bruce Jones

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