Friday, April 30, 2010

I Wish I Had, I Wish You Hadn't...

The other day I realized something about myself. I can't read a book without this nagging question in my mind: How would I have written this?

It is very similar to the reading affliction I suffered during my years as an English Literature major and the subsequent years that followed when I couldn't read without a pen in hand itching to underline and make notes in the margins. I've since freed myself of the apparatus. And I no longer read with the idea of constructing a literary argument. Now I tend to read as I imagine most writers probably do, with a critical eye to where I would've taken a different course with the narrative or structure.

Having recently rated a huge chunk of the books I've read in my life on with its limited and crude 1-5 star system, I took a look at my 5 star ratings. There is some benefit, beyond vanity to these kinds of undertakings. Like any data, once entered, it can be reviewed for patterns...only it's more interesting than your average marketing or sales report, because it reveals trends about a subject I very much A trend I noticed in my favorite books: They are all books I wish I had written or could write.

I also realize that these books, though very influential for me, are not necessarily inspirational. They are daunting. One can't help but feel inferior to perfection. I aspire to them. In many ways it's the 3 and 4 star books that really inspire me to write...when I see flaws in a book, it pushes me to examine my own manuscripts for such flaws and highlights paths I wish to avoid.

So in conclusion, let this serve as a warning to all would-be writers. Once you've made that plunge, reading often becomes work. Sure, there's moments of pure escapism...but for the most part reading is never purely for pleasure when it's so tied to what you do. But as work, well, reading is one of the best jobs you can get.

I also think a common mistake young writers make is to keep comparing their work with their favorite books. I hear this a lot from teens who write to me, how they worry about not coming close to the writing of their favorite authors. Not that you shouldn't hold yourself to a high standard, but at the same time, don't get down on yourself for not instantly being your own favorite author. Honestly, I think it would be a sad world to live in if I were my own favorite author. In my own top ten? Yeah, that I could deal with.

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