New York Times Writers on Writing series – Susan Sontag

This is the last post on the NYT WoW series, I don’t have anymore comments on those articles. The last one being “Directions: write, read, rewrite. Repeat steps 3 and 3 as needed” steps 2 and 3 being the most recent things I’ve learned (of course if you don’t have readers you’re just fine with the first draft! ;-)). Here are the words of Susan Sontag on the topic – she draws a parallel between reading and writing:

First, because to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading. You write in order to read what you’ve written and see if it’s O.K. and, since of course it never is, to rewrite it — once, twice, as many times as it takes to get it to be something you can bear to reread. You are your own first, maybe severest, reader. “To write is to sit in judgment on oneself,” Ibsen inscribed on the flyleaf of one of his books. Hard to imagine writing without rereading.

Right. As my first reader, I was very nice, I liked it immediately… for the first few months/year. Then I went back to it and was like “What the … did I write?!”. Sigh. There goes the rewrite (not on all stories, the most loved are still mostly untouched, but still… some have 2 or 3 versions already).

Of course as soon as you finish your baby, it looks perfect. It still looks beautiful after a few months. But after one year you start seeing the holes in the plot, the missed descriptions, the little things that make it less than perfect… and thus you can fall into the well of endless rewriting. Not falling into that trap again, no. But still, I can see something good in the rewriting process.

And though the rewriting — and the rereading — sound like effort, they are actually the most pleasurable parts of writing. Sometimes the only pleasurable parts. Setting out to write, if you have the idea of “literature” in your head, is formidable, intimidating. A plunge in an icy lake. Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade, edit.

Isn’t that what I said yesterday? So I better go back to upgrading my novel now. And remember why I write in the first place.

Reading usually precedes writing. And the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading. Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer. And long after you’ve become a writer, reading books others write — and rereading the beloved books of the past — constitutes an irresistible distraction from writing. Distraction. Consolation. Torment. And, yes, inspiration.

And I’ll keep reading, in my genre and others, because I don’t want to become like this:

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. (…)

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. William Trevor speaks of the boldness of the nonautobiographical imagination. Why wouldn’t you write to escape yourself as much as you might write to express yourself? It’s far more interesting to write about others.

And other worlds. And other human beings. And imagine/invent/make up things and people. Of course there is a bit of myself in everything, of my world views or whatever, but still… that’s why it’s called “fiction”, folks, right?

What I write about is other than me. As what I write is smarter than I am. Because I can rewrite it. My books know what I once knew, fitfully, intermittently. And getting the best words on the page does not seem any easier, even after so many years of writing. On the contrary.

Here is the great difference between reading and writing. Reading is a vocation, a skill, at which, with practice, you are bound to become more expert. What you accumulate as a writer are mostly uncertainties and anxieties.

Especially when you’re looking for outside recognition (a publisher, an agent, whoever might love what you write as much as you do). But don’t give up. Like the famous like of Galaxy Quest goes “Never give up, never surrender”. You might have a yo-yo ego like me, just don’t quit writing because you’re afraid of repetitions, rejections, etc.

Keep writing!


  1. I love posts that get me going: “Absolutely! That is SO true! I can’t agree more!”. This was one of those posts, Barb; a great one!

    “What you accumulate as a writer are mostly uncertainties and anxieties.” Now, ain’t that the harsh truth!


  2. junebugger

     /  24/06/2010

    Like I always say, what gets you through your rejections is how much you love your story. That is really what it comes down to most cases


  3. why do we write? Because we love it! 😉
    And yes, it’s hard work, it’s a job, pity nobody wants to pay us for it…


  4. Loved your post! We definitely DO write for the love of it! Unfortunately, real-life (a.k.a. “bills”) can definitely alter one’s perspective at times. I just did a piece on trying to diversify and make a little money with writing — I felt almost traitorous writing it, but that’s the way it goes sometimes (sigh). Best of luck to you~


    • you’re talking to a writer who has had the same day-job for 22years, just to pay those real-life things like bills (and travels) and keep writing… 🙂
      I admit I tried some alternatives (unpaid journalism), but I hated it and dropped immediately out of it. I’d rather write fiction for the rest of my life, even if I’ll be unpublished for the rest of my life (which won’t happen, because I can always self-publish, haha!)
      Happy writing to you and thanks for stopping by!


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