Friday, May 20, 2016

Help me read more of what I want to write!

I read a lot.

I write, I think, because I have always read a lot. At some point, even prior to any explicit consideration of "What will you be when you grow up?", I decided that what I got out of reading was pretty great, and what could be cooler than doing that for someone else. There was a falling away and a return to that as an actual commitment, but the feeling itself has always been there.

My reading practices have changed over time, because of course. How, when, what, how much, for what purpose -- all of these things continue to evolve. Right now, it's quite a bit less bookish and more screenish than I'd like, and because of the state of my various writing and making commitments, it is less directed and more joyfully eclectic than at some other times.

In my making-things time these days, I do radio and I write. Without getting bogged down in backstory, the writing part of that currently involves a return to a trajectory of work set aside at the beginning of the year for a tangent now (probably) abandoned, and therefore a process of experimentation, play, and work on smaller pieces to build capacity for that larger project begun but paused because of uncertainty about how to do it. That means I'm paying lots of attention to "What do I want to say?" and "How do I want to say it?"

One piece of writing advice that I mostly agree with is that if you want to write, you should read broadly. Read lots of different writers doing lots of different writing, and learn about your craft and your tastes and yourself. Within that, be sure to read lots of the sort of thing that you want to be writing. If you want to write mystery novels, read lots of mystery novels. If you want to write personal essays, then seek out as many examples as you can. If you want to write get the idea.

It came as a shock yesterday morning when I realized what a tremendously bad job I'm doing of following that advice at the moment -- not the "read lots" part, but the "read what you want to write" part. I realized that almost none of the many words I read each day is the kind of writing that moves me the most or the kind of writing that I most want to be doing myself. And of course there are good reasons for reading lots of different kinds of things, so it's not in any simple sense a waste of my time to be reading these other sorts of pieces. After all, I need to be reading news articles and current events-focused think pieces and different kinds of analysis centred on movements, because all of that is important and interesting and relevant to aspects of my work. I even write some of that, from time to time. But those are not the kinds of writing I most want to do. So what does it mean that I'm reading so little of that at the moment? How does that affect my ability to actually write what I want to write?

It's also telling that when I sat down to think of examples of writing that made me say, "Yes! That is what I want to be doing!" it took some effort to get there. What I came up with was mostly writing I had encountered in book form, and much less that I'd found online. I wonder if perhaps part of that disparity is that the books in question sit on shelves a few feet away from me and I can remind myself about them by turning my head, whereas a random essay in a random online venue by someone I'd never heard of before that I read three years ago is less likely to have stuck with me. So I'm not sure whether my sense of so little of my daily online reading consisting of this kind of writing is because I don't retain as much of it, because it is actually rare online, or because it's there but I just don't look in the right places and/or my online reading practices are aimed at doing other things.

I also want to emphasize again that these are very far from the only things that I find to be worth reading. There are lots of writers and lots of books and lots of shorter pieces that I find politically important or interesting or entertaining or worthwhile that don't make this list not because there's anything wrong with them, they just don't quite capture everything that I want to be aiming for myself.

So with all of that palaver and preamble duly noted, what I determined is that I am most moved by and most interested in doing writing that is:

  • radically engaged, in a to-the-root sense, with the social world;
  • thoughtful, which I mean in the sense of interested in exploring ideas and in embracing complexity rather than sticking with description or rushing to polemic or falling into simplification because it's politically easier to do so;
  • attentive to writing craft, which might mean experimenting with how the writing is done or it might just mean taking evident care in what is produced as a writer and not just as a scholar or a thinker or a radical; and,
  • embodied in some sense, which might mean writing that incorporates or flows from lived experience in a fairly obvious way, but which also includes a range of approaches that are more abstracted than that but that are still grounded somehow in real bodies, real lives.
I came up with lots of examples. The first thing that sprang to mind was a collection of essays I first read many years ago that was published in the '90s by Dionne Brand, who is most prominently known as an amazing writer of fiction. Bread Out of Stone: Recollections, Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming, Politics is the title, and it is a great mix of all of those things I just listed. Anything I've read by Gloria Anzaldua fits the bill. Though I've heard some people grouse about his writing, for me anything I've read by John Holloway needs to be on this list too. bell hooks, of course. Eli Clare's Exile & Pride. Some of the writings of scholars like Himani Bannerji and Dorothy Smith belong there, though not all of them. Inga Muscio's Autobiograhpy of a Blue-eyed Devil. In a different way, the work of politically insightful storytellers and personal essayists like Ivan Coyote and Bear Bergman do the trick. For all that her work has sometimes fed into political strands that are not the same as the strands of feminism that I am most likely to look to for guidance, I think some of Andrea Dworkin's work fits. In a different way, sometimes Rebecca Solnit's politics don't completely speak to me, and sometimes the jumps of connection she makes in her essays leave me behind, but she's a great writer and she belongs in this category. Some of how Peter Linebaugh and Markus Rediker write history-from-below meets these criteria. Though some of it veers towards the less accessible, Ladelle McWhorter's Bodies and Pleasures is on the list, and some of Jose Munoz's work. Some of it is clearly more academic than I want to be doing myself, and sometimes it feels like she is indulging in cleverness for its own sake, but Sara Ahmed's writing has definitely moved me. It has been awhile so I could be mis-remembering, but I think Eduardo Galeano, too.

This is a somewhat hasty and arbitrary list, and I'm sure I'm leaving lots of people out. Still, it encompasses a lot of different kinds of writers who do a lot of different kinds of writing. I am a little disturbed by the relatively high proportion of academics, though most of those manage to make the list precisely because there is something a bit different from standard academic writing in what they do.

What might it mean to spend more time reading this kind of writing? Do I want to make a point of shifting back to more bookish and less screenish reading? Perhaps. More importantly, I'd be interested in hearing other people's recommendations:

Are there any online venues where you consistently find writing that meets the four criteria above and feels like it fits with my list of examples?

Are there any writers or books or periodicals or essays that fit and that you would particularly recommend? Are there, in particular, any written by non-scholars, or by scholars but in a clearly non-scholarly mode?

1 comment:

opit said...

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