This morning at breakfast, faced with a large stack of unread magazines and newspapers, I realized that I really wanted to go upstairs to my office to work on my own book project instead.
Although my own writing is clumsy and inarticulate, it’s never on a topic that doesn’t interest me. Also, if I don’t like a word choice or phrasing, if an important side point seems left out, I can just fix it right then and there.
It’s never perfect; there’s always some way to improve it.
In contrast, in this great collection of magazines––New Scientist, The Nation, Mother Jones, Natural History, Texas Monthly, Mad, The New Yorker, and more––there are occasionally topics of only minor interest; some articles are too long, some too short.
What can I do if I disagree with a word choice or think an argument is unsupported? Fume? Write a letter to the editor? It feels very passive compared to what I can do with my book project. For me the life of the writer seems far superior, not in a moral sense, but simply in the sense of attracting my time and attention.
But then I flipped through an issue of The New York Review of Books (August 19, 2021). For a reader, that’s always intimidating. Faced with hundreds of interesting new books, my write now strategy looks even more attractive.
I came across an excerpt from a new book by Wisława Szymborska, How to Start Writing (and When to Stop). It’s a collection of the advice columns that she wrote anonymously in the Polish journal Życie literackie (Literary Life) from 1960 to 1981.
My musings about writing over reading stopped cold when I read one letter in which Szymborska decides to console a writer rather than to give him/her some hope of publication.
A splendid fate awaits you, the fate of a reader, and a reader of the highest caliber, that is to say, disinterested—the fate of a lover of literature, who will always be its steadiest companion, the conquest, not the conqueror. You will read it all for the pleasure of reading. Not spotting “tricks,” not wondering if this or that passage might be better written, or just as well, but differently. No envy, no dejection, no attacks of spleen, none of the sensations accompanying the reader who also writes.
She goes on to describe the many benefits of being a reader, rather than a writer:
And there is also this not inconsiderable benefit: people speak of incompetent writers, but never of incompetent readers. There are of course hordes of failed readers—needless to say, we do not include you among them—but somehow they get away with it, whereas anyone who writes without success will instantly be deluged in winks and sighs. Not even girlfriends are to be relied upon in such cases.
So, where to go from here?
I decided that I had read enough; the cantaloupe was finished and the oatmeal was cold. I could still pour some more coffee and return to my writer’s garret. Like the Ancient Mariner:
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.