Saturday, May 07, 2005


I like having written, not writing.

-- Anonymous

Writers write to read what they've written.

-- Susan Sontag,
novelist, literary critic

The more I read and the more I write the more I realize that reading and writing have very little, if anything, in common.

Let me be more precise. They have everything in common, of course, but that commonality masks the fundamental dichotomy that exists between what we read and what we write. The two acts are not mutually exclusive, no, but neither are they long-term bed-buddies. At best, they're good friends who occasionally sleep with each other.

Or I'll put it like this: The sentence I'm currently typing, the one that you're presently reading, for me, is an organic, developing thing, the end of which I'm only discovering right about now. For you, that previous sentence (and this one) is an existing artifact; it is there, and it is finite, and it has a beginning and an end that you can trace and delineate. For me, that sentence was alive as I wrote it. As soon as I finished typing it, the words became inert. Not lifeless, no, because whatever life they had was resuscitated by you, the reader. Myself, as writer, was the one who gave it birth, while you, as reader, were the one who performed electroshock therapy on the sentence. There's a difference -- a subtle one, but people who read a lot and write a lot may be able to recognize it.

Writing is electric and kinetic. The words come out of your brain and into your fingertips, and you are forced to control the sentence in a such a way that its ultimate destination somehow matches what you originally had in mind when you began the journey. Writing is impulsive and somewhat unwieldy; even revision, that process of making sure your thoughts and concepts make some kind of sensible sense, has its own somewhat skewed logic. We backspace and delete and erase and start again; we kill our darlings again and again, as per Hemingway's advice.

Reading, though, is an altogether tamer beast. The words and sentences are there before us, in neat, ordered columns, in paragraphs that are discrete and diligently austere. The writer has done his work and called it a day, and now we, the reader, have to complete the circle of conception. If the editor is a midwife, then the reader is the expectant father pacing the lobby who finally gets to hold the kid in his arms. (Even if said kid is not his own, we can still love the child nevertheless.)

I think I would take exception to the quotes that began this post, because I prefer writing something to reading what I've written. I prefer the act of creating itself, when everything is still possible, when anything is still possible, to the inevitably dispiriting aftermath, when what we meant to say, needed to say, longed to say, has been inadequately translated into words.

Writers write, I think, to engage in the torturous, wondrous process of conception. I think Michael Jordan would rather have played a hard-fought and bitterly contested game of basketball than to have reveled in the score afterwards, and as much as I enjoy that glorious moment of a run when I can finally stop and my feet can stop moving, I have to admit that it is the process itself, the pain itself, that is the ultimate attraction.

The afterglow may be sweeter, yes, but who said sweet things were, in the end, more fulfilling or nutritious?

It's the doing that counts; it's the doing that tells us who we are, for better or for worse. Writing may not be as fun as reading, no, but neither is attaining your bachelor's degree as fun as shooting down a waterslide. I think part of growing up is recognizing that the tough stuff, the real stuff, is the stuff that endures, molds and allows us to become greater than ourselves.

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