I’ve been pondering writing, as I am wont to do. More so because the Santa Barbara Writers Conference just happened a month ago. Going to the conference is like receiving a writing and reading booster shot. The writing booster might be expected, but reading?
The truth is that I read better after the conference. I read more carefully. I read more slowly, which is inconvenient, but it is what it is. After the conference my giant boxes of books from the fabulous Chaucer’s Bookstore arrive, but I don’t go right for the newest books. I tend to pull from the bottom of the stacks the toughest books. The ones I put off reading before the conference. The ones with the fierce reputations, the ones with the tiny type, and the poetry.
When I started my goal of reading one hundred pages a day I looked at the few books of poetry languishing on my to-read stack, looked at all the white space on most pages, and thought they would be a breeze. Not so. Poetry turned out to be the slowest read in the stack. I didn’t know it at the time, but realizing that fact would feed into some ponderings I had about writing. I haven’t got it all worked out, but I have three related ideas, and here’s part one.
Why does it take so darn long to read good writing?
This goes against what many agents and editors and even writing teachers might advise. Many of them want writing to flow swiftly off the page, the language plain and easy to digest. Practically invisible. “Kill Your Darlings!” writers are told. At times it sounds like “kill anything good!” At times I think writers follow that advice too well.
Plain writing makes easy reading. Clean simple writing lets me get through my daily reading in two hours. Less if I don’t care what’s going on in the book. But a good story, utilitarian, straightforward writing? No darlings? Two hours.
So why does great writing take twice that long? Why am I inching through W.S. Merwin’s Migration? Why did James Joyce’s Ulysses take weeks (the first time)?
I realized I wasn’t just reading them. I was hearing them.
Saint Ambrose was an odd duck. He had a habit so unusual that Saint Augustine remarked on it: he read silently. For most of history, all reading was aloud. Nobody knows if Ambrose’s lips moved when he read, but he wasn’t reading aloud. Here’s my question: was he still hearing the language? Did he have an internal narration running?
When I read great writing, I need to hear the language. That is what’s taking so long. If the language is great, I am hearing it aloud in my head. If the writing is ordinary, the meaning is going in directly, at whatever speed I can maintain. I’m not hearing it. I’m just reading it.
I don’t know if this is something that came from listening to many, many audiobooks. It might be. I can switch up “narrators” in my head if I wish. But only the great writing gets this treatment.
So there’s the problem: the better the writing, the slower the read, because I’m hearing it, not just reading it. I’m not certain what a functional MRI would find, but I bet my auditory center is up and going when I settle in with Merwin or Joyce. And maybe my music center?
That leads to Part 2 & 3 of my little contemplation. Joyce, the Irish, and music.