How To Stop Reading
Disclaimer: The following is intended for those who read too much, who care too much about writing to that point that they are too intimidated to try it themselves. If you haven’t already read a ton of books, by all means stop reading this and pick up a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo or something.
Some of the best advice I ever got about writing came from a musician. She told me, after listening to my whiskey-fueled lament about how I’d never be able to create something truly beautiful, that she stopped listening to music whenever she was working on a song. When I asked why, she said that hearing really good drummers did nothing but fill her with self-doubt. It paralyzed her, to the point where she didn’t even want to pick up her drum sticks. And she would inevitably convince herself that she had no right making music at all. She said that after listening to me talk about the writers I looked up to (Steinbeck, McCullers, Roddy Doyle, Cormac McCarthy), she thought the best thing I could do for myself would be to stop reading books for a while.
And she was absolutely right.
At the time, I was painting houses for a living. I hadn’t written anything in at least ten years because, well, I’d decided long ago that I didn’t have what it took. And I was mostly right about that: I wasn’t very good. I had nothing to say. I was “choked” as one not-so-subtle girlfriend told me at the time. So what did I do all that time I wasn’t writing?
I read books. A glorious, wonderful f-load of books.
And now here I was getting drunk with a friend, talking once again about a dream I had long ago murdered, talking about how I wished I could create something as perfect as, say, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.
“You ever listen to Rush’s YY2?”
I lied and said I had.
“You think after listening to Neil Peart play something as amazing as that that I could sit down to my crappy little kit and play? I’ll never be Neil Peart. Not even close. And I’ll never be Keith effing Moon. But what I can be is the best drummer in whatever crappy bar we happen to be playing in that night. You see what I’m saying? Put War and Peace away. Lower the damn bar. That’s where you start. Someplace where those giants aren’t staring over your shoulders.”
I don’t remember much else from that night. Other than her telling me that she didn’t know if I was a good writer or not, but that she did know that I wasn’t just a housepainter. Not that there’s anything wrong with being just a housepainter, as long as that’s all you want to be.
But that’s not all I wanted to be.
I wanted to rock out.
And so I put the McCullers and Steinbeck away.
I stopped measuring myself up against the giants.
And now I’m finally playing.
And that’s what matters: figuring out what it is that’s stopping you from attempting your dream. So what if the soundtrack to your dream features somebody banging away happily on an old suitcase rather than a twenty-piece drum kit.
It’s your dream after all.