Are we defined most by what we consume or what we create? Can it be both? Should it be either?
On a warm June evening, I sat near an open window reading a novel when a pang of guilt interrupted my moment of leisure. Why, I wondered, did I spend so much time reading but so little time writing?
This wasn’t the first time I’d asked myself the question. The answers came quickly, and I imagine they’re rather universal (for writers, anyway). Many writers I know spend far more time reading than writing. Reading is fun, after all, which is a valid reason to do it regularly, whereas writing is hard work. That’s why I so often tell people, “I enjoy having written.” Reading has the ability to drop us into other worlds and situations, thereby improving our ability to imagine life in new ways. To not read, therefore, is to constrain our own creativity, and that’s unacceptable.
They’re legitimate answers, no doubt, but they only lead to more questions. How, with busy schedules, do we find time to read but struggle to find time to write or pursue other creative endeavors? Is reading perhaps a means of avoidance and procrastination? Or is it a necessary aspect of creativity?
If we stop reading, how will we acquire knowledge? How will we analyze writing techniques and plot structures? Isn’t the first step of creating in any given medium to understand the format, to grasp the structural rules (if only to break them), and to determine what may or may not work well within the constraints of the medium? How can we do that without study?
More importantly, if we don’t write often, are we still writers? If we stop reading in order to write, are we still readers? The same questions apply to art and film-making. Who are we, anyway? What defines us in a creative, intellectual way? How do we define ourselves?
For the most part these questions are unanswerable. There is no dictionary where we can look up the definition of ourselves, and if such a tome existed we’d each have a page-long entry with dozens of contradictory sub-entries. So where does that leave us? Perhaps a revised version of the original question. Should I read more than I write or vice versa? Am I defined more by what I know or what I create? I think the answer depends on who writes the definition.
Until recently, I defined my creative self by the words, music, and pictures I admired, by all I had learned of writing, film-making, history, design, and technology. I was a consumer, in the most literal sense. I wanted to learn, to absorb, to understand, to know, and so I consumed.
If a subject interested me, I devoured it. I read books, blogs, how-to articles. I felt the path to knowledge could be marked by the quantity of words I read. So I read history, philosophy, psychology. I followed politics and government until it almost made me crazy. I read up on anything from the parliamentary procedures of the Senate to the history of beverages and their impact on society. I read books on banking, foreign economies, religions, rebellions, ancient civilizations, the fall of empires, entrepreneurship, love stories, tragedies, fantasies, and I even made a few forays into the perverse and pornographic. The goal was to learn. What is humanity? What has it been? Where is it going? I wanted to know. I still do. I want my theories and opinions to be well-informed. I want the works I create to either accurately reflect some aspect of humanity or, in a small way, to make a difference, and I tend to assume (perhaps incorrectly) that we all feel the same.
These things we consume can and do define us. They contribute to our personal philosophies, to our ideologies, to our empathic strengths, to our outlooks on humanity, religion, politics, and art. We are, in many ways, a product of all these different bits of knowledge combined, analyzed, and reported. Everything we are, all that we think, is informed by this mass consumption of chosen material, and so we must continue to consume in order to pursue our curiosities.
But forming opinions and educating oneself is only half the battle. Arguably, it’s the easy half. To make a difference, to have an impact, one must produce. For some of us that will mean networking and building businesses. For others it will mean directly influencing individual lives. For me, and for anyone else pursuing the arts, it means creating.
Reading is a passive accomplishment. It’s much less passive than watching television or listening to music, but it’s passive nonetheless. It doesn’t require creativity or the exercise of craft. It helps us learn and understand, but at some point the only way to improve is to produce. We could study the narrative structure of a thousand novels and develop theories about structural ideals, but what good are those theories if they’re never put into practice? You could read ten books on how to whittle wooden sculptures, but that wouldn’t give you the fine motor skills needed to put the right amount of pressure on the knife to get the exact shape you desire. Craft requires practice, and practice means production.
I published my first novel in the Fall. I spent years before that reading debut novels to see how my writing compared, studying book formats, fonts, line-spacing, and reading hundreds of articles on opening paragraphs, marketing, writing routines and editing. I acquired a vast wealth of abstract knowledge. Was any of it useful when the time came to stop gathering, when the time came to produce?
Actually, yes. For example, reading so many debut authors gave me confidence in my own abilities and offered insight into the quality of my writing and storytelling. More importantly, efforts to study book production helped inform many critical decisions during the publishing process. The final hardcover printing earned many comments on the book’s quality, beauty, and attention to detail, for which I’m rather proud.
Still, when I started the process, I was uncertain of my knowledge. I wanted to know more. I wanted to gather and gather until I could be certain I’d be successful with whatever I produced. It takes enormous effort to push beyond that tendency to delay, to accept your limitations and trust in the skills and knowledge you’ve acquired.
When the book arrived in the hands of readers, many people were impressed by the accomplishment. To me, the achievement was an inevitability. Only the timing was in question. To others, who see the finished product but do not see the years of learning and effort and understanding necessary to make it happen, the book was everything. To me, I was an author before I finished the book. To them, it was the book, not all the learning that went into creating it, that defined me as an author.
That’s when I realized, despite the many times it had been beaten into me by other writers and teachers, that we are nothing unless we create.
We may define ourselves both by what we consume and what we create, but others will define us by our creations. It’s important to consume, especially when it helps us create, but creating teaches us very different lessons than consuming. You learn by doing, they say, and they’re right.
I would never suggest we stop reading. That would be silly. But we must examine our habits, our routines, our tendencies, and take control of how other people define us. We start by defining ourselves. Instead of being defined by what we consume, what we know, we must be defined by the output of our consumption.
When we’re defined by the output of our consumption, we’re actually being defined by what we consume and what we create, which is much more representative of how we define ourselves. So the answer would seem to be that both are of equal importance. We must simply strive for balance. We must have confidence enough to create, even when we haven’t yet consumed all we might desire.
Originally posted July 5, 2013 on Medium