Okay, all you writers out there: I think I understand your response to my opposite-of-uplifting post from last week. You’re thinking, “Why’d you write so much when all you do is tell us readers can’t be counted on to look at our stuff and everything is hopeless? I’m not reading 15 paragraphs about that. It’s depressing. And what could be the upside to this buzzkill of a reality check? Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it?”
Not in the writing world, it isn’t. Or at least not in the publishing world. If you want a chance to get your work looked at by anyone outside of your family, friends, and teachers, you need to drill this into your head:
Readers don’t owe you squat.
Readers don’t even owe me squat when I ramble on and on and cite numerous articles in a nervous attempt to validate my argument.
I was completely serious about the upside to this most bleak and writerly of rules. Readers may not owe you squat, but in your role as a reader, you don’t owe any other writer anything, either.
I’ll tell you how I came to this glorious revelation.
A few years ago, I was writing a dissertation, and I was miserable. Time streaked by while I read and read and wrote and wrote, and still I was getting nowhere. Eventually, I decided to cash in my chips and walk away. Dissertation abandoned. I was 39.
Suddenly, I found myself in a position that I hadn’t been in since I was a young child: I had nothing I needed to read. I wasn’t in school, so I had no books or research material I needed to review. I’d quit my job as a part-part-part-time adjunct to spend more time on my dissertation, so I had no student papers to grade, no syllabi to compose, no scholarly articles to hone my professional development (such as it was). I didn’t even have a book club I was beholden to. I was completely free of readerly obligation. When it came to the printed word, I could do whatever I wanted.
So what did I do with this freedom? The same thing I did when I was a student and instructor: I forced myself to read things. I’d become so conditioned to the state of Needing to Read that even without that pressure, I was functioning as if any written work that came my way had to be read with care and in its entirety. I pushed myself to finish library books, even if I hated them. I leafed through literary magazines and felt guilty that I wasn’t subscribing to more of them. I hurriedly signed up for a writing workshop, which was a wonderful experience in itself but did nothing to shake my habit. I had to have homework, papers, and above all, reading lists.
Then I turned 40. That number messes with a lot of people’s minds, and for a while I was one of them. Eventually, though, I realized my 40th year afforded me a certain amount of clarity I’d never had before.
Here’s another thing about me I don’t mention a lot: I have lupus. I also have a disorder that makes my blood clot too much. I’ve had these two illnesses most of my adult life, which isn’t relevant here except for the fact that I’ve spent a lot of my life learning to ignore my body and push myself to Get Things Done. Except that when I turned 40, to my astonishment, I discovered that my body didn’t quite work as well as it used to. Yeah, I know, how is it that Little Miss College Instructor and PhD Candidate didn’t know that your body goes downhill as you age? Did I miss a health class in high school? The fact is, though, that it’s one thing to understand the reality of a situation and another to experience it. And the truth of the matter is, after 20 years of watching you live life in the fastest lane you can keep up with, lupus decides it’s sick of all this commotion, sits in front of your car, and refuses to move.
Here are some other less-than-comfortable facts that started occurring to me as I considered my new-found decrease in energy, pain tolerance, and ability to deny. Probably the most famous writer who also had lupus was Flannery O’Connor. She died when she was 39. (Actually, yesterday happened to be the anniversary of her death.) In the same time it had taken O’Connor to produce all that amazing work and live out her life, I’d managed to take a lot of college courses and flame out on a dissertation. Not only did that thought suck, it also made me wonder how much time I have left. Granted, O’Connor lived in an age when there weren’t effective treatments for lupus. My case of lupus also happens to be mild–so mild that I could disregard it most of the time and pass for healthy. Still, lupus is unpredictable, and people today with lupus continue to die young. Most of you out there in Fickleland probably don’t know Lucy Vodden. At 4, she inspired the picture that Julian Lennon drew (also at age 4) that inspired John Lennon to write “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Vodden is gone now. Vodden had lupus for five years and died from it in 2009. She was 46.
Right now, I am 41.
If my health took a serious downturn tomorrow, am I really going to say to myself: Thank God I finished that crappy library book?
THAT was the revelation that inspired the Precious Seconds Rule. Basically it goes like this.
Unless I have reading to do for work or school, I will never again waste the precious seconds of my life reading any written work that I have no interest in.
See how this helps you? It releases you from the guilt, the struggle, the going-along-with-the-crowd mentality of all kinds of reading obligations that people try to foist on you for their own best interests. Most people may not read any books at all in a year, but you know what? If they can’t find anything they want to read, why should they settle?
You shouldn’t have to settle, either. If you don’t like a piece of writing, STOP READING IT. As a writer, you don’t get many chances to flex your muscles.
As a reader, you are the muscle. You are the Almighty Hand of the Market. You do the driving. You have the power. Use it.