The Reader Becomes the Writer

I’ve been a reader almost all my life. Since graduating from high school I’ve rarely gone more than a few days without having a book on the go. If I’m not reading I feel like something’s missing and a kind of malaise sets in. I can even begin to feel depressed. For me, being immersed in a story is a crucial part of the experience of being alive. Admittedly, it’s an escape: reading provides distance from the things that happen from one day to the next. It’s a way to retreat and assess.

I have not been a writer all my life. Writing came later, after I figured out that a book doesn’t miraculously sprout from the ground, that someone has to sit down and write it, and that the people who write books do so out of a compulsion to express something that needs to be expressed.

When I graduated from high school I was not prepared for much of anything. I was stupid and naïve on so many levels that I find it scary (and embarrassing) to contemplate now. Among other things, when I graduated from high school I was totally unequipped to recognize good writing for what it is. I don’t know if the system failed me or not. More likely, I just wasn’t ready.

My early reading was undirected and random. I read whatever was lying around the house: bestsellers, murder mysteries, political thrillers, a few classics. In the process I discovered that I enjoyed some types of books more than others. I also discovered that not all readers are attracted to the same kind of writing and that writers write with a conscious purpose, aware of the specific audience they are trying to reach. Most importantly, I discovered that the writing that affects me most intensely and that I find memorable and moving is the kind that digs deep into human experience while trying to do something original with language.

It was at this time in my life that reading became something more than just an amusement. It became important.

Jump forward a few years. I decided to pursue literary studies at university. I would turn my love of reading into a career!

Then something happened. For my university classes I had read the classics, but when I read fiction on my own time I gravitated toward modern and contemporary writers, specifically a group of 20th-century American authors whose short stories I had discovered and admired greatly. One of these writers was John Cheever, and one day I read his short story "The Country Husband."

Cheever was at the top of his game when he wrote "The Country Husband" and the first paragraph of the story is, by any measure and regardless of taste, a stunning achievement. It’s almost unnerving, the way it completely arrests the

reader’s attention and pulls him into the world of the story. Cheever introduces his hapless protagonist, Francis Weed, on a plane that’s about to make an emergency landing. In the scene, Francis is a spectator: his fate rests in someone else's hands and all he can do is watch events unfold. Cheever’s masterstroke is showing Francis to the reader from the outside, allowing us some distance, which enables us to take in the larger scene and share intensely the helplessness of everyone on the plane. Cheever selects language that is lulling and arranges the words to create a smoothly flowing and gently rhythmic syntax. The paragraph ends with stillness and held breath. In that moment, when the passengers don't know if they're going to live or die, an eerie silence takes hold as the plane is being buffeted by the weather. And out of the silence, faintly but distinctly, emerges the sound of the pilot singing.

I believe the minute or so that it took me to read that paragraph was transformative. My conception of how language works and what it can do changed. I was one person when I started reading and a different person altogether when I finished. I went from appreciating and admiring what other people can do with language to wanting to do it myself.

No doubt I’m romanticizing the moment when I decided to become a writer. For instance, I can’t remember if I read the story on a bus, or in bed, or in the library, or in the middle of winter or on a sweltering summer day. And it’s likely the process was less a conscious "decision" than a gradual shift in my manner of thinking about literature and storytelling.

But no matter. I was a reader, and then—suddenly—I was a writer. It’s much more fun to remember it that way.