Read. Read a lot. Read award winning fiction, critically praised non-fiction, the best in whatever genre you wish to write yourself. These suggestions abound in writing magazines, and are dispensed by people who know something about the craft of writing. The intention is to flood your brain with wonderful word choices and beautiful phrasing in the hopes that your own writing will follow suit.
Initially I embraced this advice. I was glad to have any excuse to indulge myself in more time spent reading. The more I read the more I wanted to read, and I even began to read books in genres I had formerly avoided in order to stretch my writing in new directions. I had not yet collected a paycheck as a writer, but all the reading I was doing made me feel like I was inhaling words and would soon strike pay dirt with my own compositions.
I began to focus more on details when I was reading. Instead of becoming completely immersed in a book, I became distracted by an author ending a sentence with a preposition or using too many adjectives or adverbs. In one novel that I thought was particularly lovely and effective, the author chose to start a sentence in nearly every paragraph with “but,” something I had always been told was a no-no.
I began to question the grammar rules that had been pounded into me during my years in Catholic elementary school. Why wasn’t it right for me to write a sentence like, “She didn’t know how much she could put up with,” or “It was what I had been dreaming of?” The very fact that the books I love the most flaunt convention, using whatever words they please in whatever order they choose, seemed to indicate it was time to throw the grammar book out before it did more harm.
Disturbing thoughts about my writing started to surface. I began to wonder if the fact that I still felt the compulsion to follow all the grammar rules might be stifling my creativity. Inadequacy and doubt entered the picture when I found I couldn’t step away from the rules others had imposed on me in order to express myself. I forged on, still writing while trying to ignore the doubts that crept in and intertwined with my phrases and sentences.
In the cruelest twist, reading all the exceptional writing has not done what I had hoped it would do. Instead of inspiring me to write more and write more effectively, it has intimidated me to the point where it is close to defeating me. Whenever I read a particularly lovely turn of phrase, negative thoughts race in to greet me. I think such things as, ‘I will never be able to express myself this beautifully,’ or ‘I don’t know how to touch an emotional cord in this way with words.’ Other writers have without question faced these same doubts, but this writer doesn’t know if I have the strength to weather the negative self talk.
Whether I abandon my plans of becoming a writer or not, my enjoyment of reading may have become permanently affected. Picking up a well-written book and seeing it as a symbol of my failure instead of a glorious escape is one dilemma. Even if I am able to overcome that, it is clear I am already unable to read with the abandon I once did. I wonder if I will ever enjoy a book again without picking its grammar and sentence structure apart.
If I continue to write and summon the courage to submit, I might have to shield myself to some extent from well written literature. Rejection letters will be enough for my self esteem to deal with. Being faced with extraordinary writing presents yet another sort of rejection. It doesn’t take a lot to discourage my fragile ego – I desire a much thicker skin. But I believe a writer’s ego needs to be sufficiently frail in order to be able to look at ones self and others with all artifice stripped bare. Confident and cocky individuals are often not in tune with the subtleties of the motives and behaviors of themselves and others. Sensitive people feel things more keenly, which translates into prose that carries the ring of truth. I’ve learned to trust my delicate ego for the insights it provides me as I write my stories, and then I attempt to switch to protecting it when the critiques roll in.
In the end I know my threats to curtail my reading of fine literature is an empty one. A love affair with books that began as a toddler cannot be so easily discarded. There must be a way to use fine writing to challenge and improve my own without threatening me and I continue in that search. Reading does put wonderful words into my bank to draw upon and I can certainly use the cash. So I will continue to read; read a lot; read the best writing I can find to inspire me and try very hard not to pay attention to sentences ending in prepositions.