I write a lot. I frequently produce information in the form of brochures, user manuals and website content, instructional material and tutorials that detail technical solutions for problems I’ve concluded might be helpful to others, humorous reiterations of news stories, and even sales pitches used to convince someone to click something on the internet. Recently I have come to a somewhat startling realization: writing has always come natural to me, reading has not. It’s an obvious contradiction. One that initially indicated a shortcoming, but through further self-introspection led to a new perspective altogether.
Of course I read, just not as a hobby like others. This is odd because I loved reading and being read to as a child. In fact, I built an entire website dedicated to the fact. In high school, books stayed in the backpack, unless absolutely necessary. I recall losing two books during my senior year because I never used them. I wasn’t aware of the loss until school administrative officials demanded compensation for the relics, without which I could not graduate.
As a young adult I found it extremely difficult to finish a book, no matter the length. I remember a fortune cookie that said something to the effect, “You will finish a book in the near future and it will change your life.” That was the day I stopped believing in fortune cookies. Today still, I receive no pleasure from reading for reading’s sake. When I read, it’s for a purpose. I have a question and I know someone has found the answer or at least enlightened the path. I want to know what they said, what their process was, what they discovered. For this reason I rarely touch fiction. Yet, I’ll write ’til my fingers bleed, my bloodshot eyes no longer withstand the piercing sea of computer monitor pixels, or a chilling beer has lingered in the freezer too long and is on the verge of becoming a useless mixture of slush which needs immediate attention.
Is it right that I’m this way? Am I some how neglecting myself? Would writing skills improve simply by reading more? After all, as a writer, don’t I expect others to read? Why do I not hold myself to the same standard? Many good questions have lofted through my brain. Very few have landed on a palatable answer.
Even the books I do choose sometimes bore me. But not all. In a recent study of non-violence I consumed three books written by the great Martin Luther King Jr. which detail his life, struggles, and philosophy. I could not put them down. One by one they fell to the side, engraving on my soul strong memories of actions I never participated in, and causing deep emotions from injustice I never experienced. His writing style flowed from page to page, chapter to chapter, as if I was a small boy crowded around a camp fire at story time and he was our camp instructor telling us the history of the mountain tops. Very few times have I been engrossed in reading as I as was with King.
In one of these books, I forget which, he pays respect to Gandhi for his development of the Ahimsa (nonviolence) concept. Ahimsa was not a passive philosophy, but rather a progressive method used for social change in India. This work, along with the teachings of Jesus, greatly impacted King and led him to believe in the strength of the non-violent ideas later displayed by the Civil Rights Movement. Two historical icons with very different circumstances, cultural challenges, and resources came to the same conclusion: non-violence and love was the only answer to their conflict. One could argue that without Gandhi and his Ahimsa philosophy, the Civil Rights Movement might have failed. This led me to the instructions of Gandhi in his autobiography.
Again, there was a question that needed answering: How did Gandhi affect King? I have the book on my shelf. It’s 400+ pages terrified me, but the need to know tugged at my soul. I eventually picked up tattered paperback covered by a photograph of an aged, withered, but content Gandhi. It read, “Gandhi: An Autobiography. The story on which the epic film Gandhi is based.” I thought to myself, “Wow. Have we come so far that book covers now double as advertisements for film?” Of course not. Books become film first and then people read them. I digress. After about a month of 10 minute reading sessions on the light rail that transports me to and from work, I finished the book. He details his struggles with lust, fatherly responsibilities, law, religion, and much more. The ultimate purpose to capture what he called his “experiments with truth” and share them with the reader. I had learned Gandhi’s life story, but I didn’t enjoy it. It was insightful, but dull and boring. In the introduction he says:
I believe, or at any rate flatter myself with the belief, that a connected account of all these experiments will not be without benefit to the reader…My purpose is to describe experiments in the science of Styagraha, not to say how good I am.
His great contribution to mankind is undeniable. The impact of his actions on human history can not be accurately measured. But unlike King, Gandhi failed to connect to his readers, or at least me, which was saddening since I’m probably one of the few people reading it for non-academic reasons. How could someone’s life, who was so important, so revolutionary, be so tedious to read? It wasn’t the life that was dreary, it was the way his life was captured on the page.
As a person who nearly failed high school and couldn’t tell you the difference between a past participle and–hold on, let me look up some random English grammatical term–dependent clause, I think it’s important to make use of the tools I have available to me. For me, writing is simply an extension of spoken word. My devotion to King’s books is attributed to the way King writes. He writes like he speaks, which we all know is majestic. An author’s voice is in his writing, a tool I have yet to sharpen. To capture the heart and imagination of the reader, awaken all the senses with only paper and ink, and force time, place and circumstance to vanish, is the desire of any writer. I don’t think Gandhi had that desire. He was documenting his experiences, not telling a story. He was sharing facts, not opening the imagination. He didn’t capture me, which made it harder to understand his position, ultimately defeating the original purpose of the book.
Just because you do something great, doesn’t mean writing about it will have parallel success. There are basic concepts that are universal in all good written works. Writing is a skill, a tool that helps you convey ideas using such principles. A skill anyone can develop. Writing is not an art in itself, however. The same way you cannot produce beautiful music without understanding the listener, prepare a great meal without understanding taste, or construct a masterful painting without understanding the perspective of the human eye.
Writers are not word factories that pump out sentences and paragraphs of a certain topic. Just as readers are not mindless consumers of the fabricated goods. There is a connection between the two. It is a transfer of knowledge from one person to another through written dialogue. But this transfer requires the writer to have accurate depictions, creative metaphor, precise vocabulary, and most importantly the intent to be understood, not simply to be published. And so a developmental path begins.