Susan Sontag on the heaven of reading & writing

 

“Many writers who are no longer young claim, for various reasons, to read very little, indeed, to find reading and writing in some sense incompatible. Perhaps, for some writers, they are. It’s not for me to judge. If the reason is anxiety about being influenced, then this seems to me a vain, shallow worry. If the reason is lack of time — there are only so many hours in the day, and those spent reading are evidently subtracted from those in which one could be writing — then this is an asceticism to which I don’t aspire.

Losing yourself in a book, the old phrase, is not an idle fantasy but an addictive, model reality. Virginia Woolf famously said in a letter, ”Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.” Surely the heavenly part is that — again, Woolf’s words — ”the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego.” Unfortunately, we never do lose the ego, any more than we can step over our own feet. But that disembodied rapture, reading, is trancelike enough to make us feel ego-less.

Like reading, rapturous reading, writing fiction — inhabiting other selves — feels like losing yourself, too.

Everybody likes to think now that writing is just a form of self-regard. Also called self-expression. As we’re no longer supposed to be capable of authentically altruistic feelings, we’re not supposed to be capable of writing about anyone but ourselves.

But that’s not true.

Louise Erdrich’s advice for anyone writing a novel

Interviewer: A journalist once asked you what advice you would give someone trying to write a novel. You said, “Don’t take the project too seriously.” Is that what you would say today?

Erdrich: I think I meant that grand ideas kill first efforts. Begin with something in your range. Then write it as a secret. I’d be paralyzed if I thought I had to write a great novel, and no matter how good I think a book is on one day, I know now that a time will come when I will look upon it as a failure. The gratification has to come from the effort itself. I try not to look back. I approach the work as though, in truth, I’m nothing and the work is everything. Then I write to save my life. If you are a writer, that will be true. Writing has saved my life.