American writer Rumaan Alam, in a recent interview, revealed that he enjoys writing about other people’s books. He says it’s a way of staying engaged in literature while not thinking about his own work. Alam focuses on writers he believes are better than him — he says it keeps him sharp. As a self-proclaimed binge reader, Alam escapes from his own writing while also nourishing it by throwing himself into the work of another. He calls this practice the “input-output proposition.”
“It’s important to have other pursuits beyond my own fiction — to have a thing that I can do that enriches my understanding of the world instead of just about my own invented worlds,” he says. “I really enjoy writing about books, and sometimes I write about music and film.” In the input-output proposition, Alam says it’s difficult to get to the point of output if you haven’t had any input. “A tether or a perspective of what’s happening in the world that has to do with other people’s work is really useful.”
“If you want to be a writer,” wrote Stephen King, “you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” In my own experience, I’ve never heard of a writer who wasn’t a reader. In painting, artists trade in a primal language ripe for derivation, influence and even pastiche. Painters run the gamut of how much input they elect to receive in the midst of their own art making. Lifelong learners, it seems, grab at images, technique, workshops, reading, exhibitions and the close study of how others are making things, and risk never finding their own path. On the other end of the spectrum are the autocrats and isolationists — artists who thrive in the vacuum of their own imaginations, their hermitages shielding them from outside influence, all in an effort to create something wholly original, or perhaps to protect them from their own mediocrity. Most of us, I suspect, are somewhere in between — guarding the fiefdoms of our weak and strong ideas and aware, always in our periphery, of the methods and cares of our ancestors and peers. All the while, we must ultimately sail solo across the open ocean of our own creative discoveries. Painters, like writers, in the end, have to go it alone. And yet, in the expedition, we have never been the only ones.
PS: “Writing takes gall. I like to think that’s true even for writers with several books under their belt, writers who have been doing it for years. It takes something – guts, gumption, self-delusion – to ask for a reader’s time when we all know there’s nothing new under the sun; that it’s all been said, or written, before.” (Rumaan Alam)
Esoterica: Ideas, the stories we tell and the dramas unfolding within all of us come from everywhere and nowhere. The execution of ideas comes from work. Both the singular, uninfluenced stream of a full-force gale and the polyphony of crosswinds can fill your sails. How does an artist of any medium draw from an infinite diaspora of the excellent work of others and then pour forth an original and meaningful voice of their own? The answer is in the second half of the proposition. Input is easy. Output is a bloody slog through derivation, mimicry, false starts, adulation, expressionless technical proficiency, rule learning and breaking, invention and ultimately advancing an art form towards revolution.
Begin today. The next time you cruise your eyes across the work of another and try to articulate what you see, you will also come armed with information you’ve discovered alone in your own room. It will tether you to them, offer its perspective and as with Alam, it will keep you sharp.
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“Writer’s block is a fiction.” (Rumaan Alam)
My aim as a painter is to bring to life a slice of the world as I experience it. Light, color and form are my vocabulary.