The writer origin story you've never heard
i admire your honesty about it 🤍 i love to read, but i also share the same frustration about reading slowly. at some point i even wondered if there is some kind of measurement, like i have to read xxx number of books before i can consider myself a writer or before i could write and identify myself with it. but that was before. soon enough, i've grown to accept it, and even love it about my reader self. even though reading slow means i might miss out on a lot of books i could read in my entire life if only i read fast, i simply accept the fact that i won't be able to read everything anyway. the thought gives me comfort. i honestly think the world is fast enough and i don't always need to keep up. i read whenever i want for as long as i want to, and as slow as i need to. :)
Relating to this so hard as a "not-writer" who has started to write and is struggling to self-identify as a writer. I always felt like I didn't have the right to be a writer - truly never even considered it - because I hadn't passionately nursed the dream TO WRITE. But then I suddenly had a story I wanted to share, and writing a memoir seemed like a good way to do that. So I took a memoir class to get started and then cringed every time the instructor stressed the importance of reading, reading, reading and especially reading memoirs. (I probably averaged a book a year - maybe.)
I braced myself when it finally came time to share my first chapter, and my instructor immediately remarked that it was probably as strong as it was even though it was my first written work as a memoirist, because of ALL THE READING I had done. LOL!
Net: I have come to see writing as the means to my desired end, which is to share my story in a way that will help others. The reading, the crafting, and ultimately the written work are all just in service of that goal. Or at least that's what's currently keeping my writer imposter syndrome at bay!
Reading is as necessary as food to me. I used to read two books a day, and was secretly proud of my speed. I'm older now, and find that with books, as with food, I don't take on too much at once anymore. Reading more slowly opens up nuances in the author's intention that I wouldn't have noticed before. I read with deeper understanding now that I'm not galloping through the pages. I enjoy going back and re-reading a paragraph, to get more out of it. I now think that speed-reading is a waste of energy, unless you have a photographic memory you can use for review. Savor what you read. Anything you read will stay knocking around in your head, anyway.
I used to slink off when someone would say “Don’t trust a writer who writes more than they read.” It’s wholly unfair for young children, especially, who may need writing as a therapeutic or coping mechanism. I wrote voraciously as a child because speaking up got me in too much trouble. But reading was like chasing down wild horses and trying to get them to stand in a line.
It took me yearssssss to accept that being a slow reader is actually what makes me a good editor. I’m not trying to prove how fast I can digest and puke out edits. Slow reading means I give writing a chance to prove its potential. 🤷🏻♀️
ALSO, just throwing this out there ... fast, voracious reading assumes that your sense of vision is the ONLY worthwhile human mechanism for absorbing information and details.
Absolutely love this story! Note to self - you don't have to be anything just because other people expect it!
Unsolicited Suggestions from a fellow writer/editor/rhetoric and composition professor:
Audiobooks? Even summary services like Blinkist and the study websites the kids are using lol? Podcasts? Research assistants?
I think there are a lot of ways to get facts you need aside from slogging through something you're not into. Also, fwiw, it seems like a disproportionate number of writers have dyslexia or other learning disabilities. A different relationship to the work can often lead to especially fresh work.
I'd also recommend the book Breakthrough Rapid Reading--it made a difference for me in speed and confidence. Maybe even How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Also any of Cal Newport's work. His "How to Become a Straight-A Student" would be useful for this issue. I read it long after being a student. (I don't think it's his best work -- Deep Work is a lot more interesting -- but for this issue, the Straight A one would prob be more useful.)
Lover of reading here, but the idea of disconnecting from the origin story you've built for yourself (or had built around you) resonates. It feels too easy sometimes to pick up an identity that can never be shed!
I love this piece. I have loved reading but only started writing after retirement. I look to people who have been writing all their lives and wonder how I missed the activity. I wish i had written as much as I have read over the years. But my motto is: it's never too late and I'm never too old.
I'm a terribly slow reader too; my mind wanders all the time while reading, and I always have to go back and read the paragraphs again. I'm terribly self-conscious and even feel ashamed that it means something about my intelligence and/or capability. Thank you for your vulnerability - it's been healing.
P.S. As I was reading your essay, I was thinking that you're destined to start a women's health start-up. How perfect an origin story you'd have and already an audience to accelerate your first product launch :)
Oh man. Thanks for this. It resonates greatly. I am a writer who maybe has some dyslexia or maybe just hasn’t read enough in my life to make me fast. I am an AVID learner...who rarely finishes informative books. How? Why? Is this inextricably shameful? Maybe no. Thanks for naming these experiences and breathing life into alternative solutions and narratives. Sincerely, thank you.
Thank you for sharing this story Rae. We all like what we like. Just because I love reading doesn’t mean I expect everyone else to as well - nor do I love reading ‘everything’. (Noone can read everything & not everything published is worth our attention.)
We all bring to our art different experiences & skills. That is why our individual voices matter.
I relate to this a lot, especially being slow at reading (even though I was very fast as a kid, go figure) and feeling like I had to meet this idea of "being a writer." I wanted to write a Great Novel, but I wrote My Novel and then put it in a drawer. I didn't really need the world to see it. Thanks for sharing this.
For 30 seconds I was appalled but only because reading is like air over here. I’d rather read than sleep, eat, converse with humanity, clean, work or run errands! It’s basically my career although I’m not paid to do it 🤣🤣👎🏼👎🏼. Then I became utterly fascinated because I too have heard many of those quotes and have assumed that writers are readers! I love that you’re turning that assumption on its head because clearly you ARE a writer and a very good one!! I like your brain waves.
I also love the statement about finding what works for YOU and just find it to be such a great mindset for all of us in so many areas!! Cheering you on in finding your preferred reading rhythm!!
Also WHAT?!!!! I’m DYING to read this odyssey of Chinese truck drivers with their American sidekick!! I’m intrigued!! This coupled with Jacks class... c’mon man! Your life is astounding!!!
There is a depth in the reflection that I see when I look into your mirror that my mirror does not reveal. It is the richness you have lived, not the notches in your library card from which the bright light of your work emanates. May it shine! I'll bet a hot memoire about your frustration about the China adventure would be interesting. Sounds like a fertilizing chapter in your life. Be well.
This piece really resonated with me, Rae! I am one of those writers who says things like, "good writers are good readers." But that's something of a meme, and a lot of good information gets lost when we reduce down to the meme.
For one thing, there are good writers who don't read much. Walter Mosley, one of my favorite novelists, has said in interviews that he doesn't read other authors because he doesn't want their voices in his head. I think there's something to that. When I write fiction, I tend to stay away from reading fiction. And if I do read fiction, it's never the genre I'm writing in. I hear this a lot from writer friends. Most of my writer friends are screenwriters, and most of them write comedy, but when they sit down to read a book, they rarely pick a funny book. As one comedy writer friend told me, "I need to decompress from work, so I read the darkest crime fiction and horror I can find."
Of course, there's a lot to be said for familiarizing yourself with works in your chosen writing area. You learn a lot about structure, craft, and tone. You can also learn a lot about what readers look for when they read that kind of work, and that should inform how you think about the business of your writing.
But I think the personal lessons that come from reading are what matter most here. I used to be a screenwriter, and I was pretty miserable, tbh. The thing that helped me see that misery, though, was how I thought about reading screenplays. I started out as a screenwriter who was interested in reading scripts, but never passionate. Slowly at first, then quickly, my interest in reading screenplays went to zero. I kept writing screenplays, though. And I kept rewriting my screenplays, which also involves a lot of reading of screenplays. I kept telling myself that I did have a passion for reading, and that was true, but it wasn't the truth when it came to screenplays. At some point, though, I got honest with myself. Instead of pushing myself to read scripts I didn't want to read, I gave myself permission to not read them. Slowly at first, then quickly, I realized that I wasn't really passionate about reading screenplays, or writing them. But, and I think this is the important part, the passion for that type of writing (or in my case, lack of passion) showed up more in my reading than my writing. In other words, how I felt about reading screenplays ultimately told me what I needed to know about my own screenwriting.
As it turned out, I didn't feel the same way about fiction or personal essays. I have a lot of passion for reading fiction and personal essays, and that passion also shows up in my work. Am I a better writer because I'm well read in the areas I chose to write in? Yes, I think so. But I think what's more important is that I understand my passion. Because if I'm really passionate about something, I'll keep at it long past the point where a reasonable, sensible person would quit.
One more thing. There's nothing wrong with being a slow reader! I've made my living as a writer for 20-plus years, and people are always surprised when I tell them that I struggled to learn to read (eye issues and learning disabilities), and that I *still* struggle.
OK, I'm rambled on enough here. Thanks for this piece! I'm not a subscriber, even though I should've subscribed back when Alex Dobrenko told me too :)
My mom and her sisters were all avid readers. Then my middle sister. For me, it's hot and cold. If i get into what I'm reading, I continue- non-sleep and all until I'm done. I can stay up all night to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. Don Winslow's latest is taking me forever. Your essays- I can't get enough of them. I have also created novels in my head but to put them on paper scares the shit out of me.