I’ve always been a better reader than writer. I’m not exactly sure why. It may be a matter of practice, or confidence, but I think it’s likely something else entirely.
Different writers teach us different things.
Nietzsche taught us to slow down; Whitman how to speed up; and, we’re still trying to learn how to breath from the bewilderingly insouciant and unsurprisingly fresh Gertrude Stein. Yet, each in their own way, they taught us the same thing: how to read, how to quickly navigate their work, on their own terrain.
As readers, we can wholeheartedly identify with their ambition. They’ve showed us the world anew, through a breadth of mismatched, varying perspectives. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’ve always followed their advice, or felt the need to incorporate their philosophy, but they’ve set us on a different course than the one we were on before. They are united in that, and perhaps that alone.
There’s so much in the world to absorb.
As writers, when we start to write, we somehow have the tendency to feel anxious. We’re disturbed by the idea that what we have to say won’t measure up to our own expectations, or the world won’t receive it the way we intended it to be heard. In a way, our fear is that our contribution will take away from the power and pleasure of the reader - namely, the collective ‘us’. The world, to be blunt, will absorb us and our heroes will feel betrayed.
What we often forget is that our heroes had teachers too.
Maybe the humor of Tristram Shandy inspired Nietzsche to pursue the limits of the aphorism. Maybe his extensive travels through the frontiers of Emerson brought Whitman to have the courage to find his own cadence. Further still, maybe William James set Gertrude Stein out on a course to find her own stream of invention.
Not to be unkind to our heroes, because they’ve taught us so much, but they haven’t really taught us how to write. They may have provided us with a framework by which to start our exploration, and that’s important too, but they haven’t outlined specific ways in which we can teach ourselves to become better writers. Maybe our lion hearts intentionally left that task to someone else. Someone more patient, with a different set of skills and compassions.
For the first time, I feel like I’ve finally found a teacher who can help me become a better writer. Well, actually, two. Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee. They’ve just written a book, aptly entitled Nicely Said, which aims to make writing more accessible, meaningful and important. While the audience is clearly defined, like all great books, I think it’s for everyone. It brings great attention to the details we so often overlook by helping us organize our appreciation of the world.
The standard line on how to become a better writer often goes something like this: you simply need to read more carefully, widely and intently. Look for cracks, nuances and tips. That’s how to ensure you learn something new and become a better writer. This technique, to be sure, is not the same as trying to "get unstuck" while you are writing.
Certainly, reading is linked to writing in inextricably beautiful ways. One of the ways in which it is severed, however, is that it is never complete. We never write, in advance, for an audience that we know exists. Writing, the true power of the written word, happens before the event itself unfolds. Before, as Deleuze writes, ‘the people exist’.
While reading may help us articulate our thoughts, it can’t discern how our contributions to the world will turn out. Writing allows the reader to coalesce around that which is yet to come. Perhaps that’s the irony of why so many of us prefer reading, over writing, and why we find writing so arduous, and so unorganized.
I believe, Nicely Said has opened the pathways for a new type of writer. One that is inspired and committed to contribute to the world in yet to be determined ways. Above all else, the book inspires us, in an appropriately timely fashion, to develop the confidence we need to structure our thoughts in a world full of heroes.
P.S. I hope I don’t disappoint my new teachers with too many mistakes.