Reading with aim and purpose, and with an end in view
Grist for your facile pen
Have you noticed that writers are also the best readers? Even when engaged in reading, they are busy unwriting the author’s words, dissecting them, and taking apart his meticulous constructions. Then there’s the uncommon reader, for whom reading is always directed towards an aim or purpose. They read within a finite group of purposes and they are ever vigilant to
You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of yourtwelve problems to see whether it helps.
As a child Virginia Woolf was enthralled by the Elizabethan writers, due in no small part to Hakluyt’s collection of the early voyages, travels, and discoveries of the English nation (1599 - 1600) that her father “lugged home for her”.
He must have been 65; I 15 or 16 then; and why I don’t know but I became enraptured, though not exactly interested, but the sight of the large yellow page entranced me. I used to read it and dream of those obscure adventurers and no doubt practised their style in my copy books.
To write something, anything, you first need to accumulate others’ ideas. Imitation is how we must all start out when writing, but it is the serious writer who moves past the words, no matter how enamouring they may be, to capture the essence of the the thought—what Virginia Woolf calls her “serious” reading: “reading with pen and notebook” and “with an end in view”. When Woolf was in her early twenties, she wrote and edited (more the latter) for the Times Literary Supplement, under the tutelage of Bruce Richmond, who taught her “to read with a pen and notebook, seriously.” Years later, when she began keeping a writer’s diary, she wrote about this process in relation to the book she was then writing.
I fill in this page, nefariously… I don’t know. I feel that I am only accumulating notes for a book—whether I shall ever face the labour of writing it, God knows… To begin reading with a pen in my hand, discovering, pouncing, thinking of phrases, when the ground is new, remains one of my great excitements… Yet after all, that’s the way to write;… the truth of one’s sensations is not in the fact, but in the reverberation. When I have read three lines, I remake them entirely, if they’re prose, and not poetry; and it is this which is the truth.
We create from whatever “odds and ends” we can find, to build up a portrait of the thing: someone, somewhere, something; and we do not know what the finished picture will look like. We are navigating towards truth, where truth is really the unity of disparate experiences that reveal a certain affinity for one other. An ever-elusive current of meaning runs through each of them. The truth really is in the reverberations, that is the cogitating of another’s words and reaching out for the common ground that we have trodden on before. It’s a painstaking task, but is the most important step to forming our ideas. With today’s technologies, we have it easy, as I will outline below. But consider how extremely difficult it must have been for writers of the past to maintain their copious notes. Like Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf kept a diary of her reading and Most famously, perhaps is Dostoevsky, who maintained his writer’s diaries for all his books, which also proved to be a wellspring of ideas for his other short stories and articles in the press.
Ideas for your facile pen
How you organise your knowledge is everything. Today’s tools have evolved by leaps and bounds and the ideation process has been taken apart and studied . Lesser known and novel methods of note taking have been resurrected in modern apps like Roam Research and Work Flowy. Just like many of you, I’ve tried most of these tools. The Zattelkasten method is
To be a good writer means to first be a good reader.