Thich Nhat Hanh

Like a Tiger in the Lowlands: Advice for Writers (Part One: Reading)

On the Buddhist website Lion's Roar, the esteemed teacher, author, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh writes that "When a tiger leaves the mountain and goes to the lowland, it will be caught by humans and killed. When practitioners leave their sangha, they will abandon their practice after a few months. [Note: "Sangha" basically means the community of Buddhism, both religious (monks and nuns) and lay (everyone else).] In order to continue our practice of transformation and healing, we need a sangha. With a sangha it’s much easier to practice, and that is why I always take refuge in my sangha." 

Thich Nhat Hanh's words are Buddhist-directed, but they are equally applicable to writers. In May 2018 I taught a creative writing class at Hill-Stead Museum, as part of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, and towards the end we spoke about those key features that can support us in our goals. For me, they are:

  1. Reading

  2. Writing

  3. Community.

I feel that in order to sustain us in a do-able, daily writing practice (even if - especially if - we have nine to five day jobs), it's vital to read and write as close to on a daily basis as possible, and associate with other writers frequently. We have to make sure that we don't get isolated in the lowlands, and instead remain in the "mountain fastness" of our own terrain: the terrain that is both created, sustained and deepened by reading, writing and a writing community. (Regarding the way a writing practice creates our own "turf" or kingdom, Steven Pressfield says the following in The War of Art: "When Arnold Schwarzenegger hits the gym, he’s on his own turf. But what made it his own are the hours and years of sweat he put in to claim it. A territory doesn’t give, it gives back.")

Let's look at the first of the three today, Reading.

Beginning writers are often eager to write, but less often do they realise the importance of reading, and this is despite the fact that almost every established writer will tell you: If you want to write, first you must read. Or at least, you have to read in tandem with writing. (In a related theme, T.S. Eliot is reported to have written in his diary, "Spoke with X today. Says he wants to be a poet. Doesn't say anything about wanting to write poems.") Another thing younger writers are afraid of is being influenced by other writers, or submitting their work for a critique. They believe that all they do, even on the first-draft level, is unassailable. And yet, reading, working a piece through a variety of drafts and being critiqued by others (constructively) are essential to improving as a writer.


Here is a really excellent article by Rebecca Solnit published on Lit Hub, "How to be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit." About reading, she says: 


 Read good writing, and don’t live in the present. Live in the deep past, with the language of the Koran or the Mabinogion or Mother Goose or Dickens or Dickinson or Baldwin or whatever speaks to you deeply. Literature is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being published in this very moment is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches.  


Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami says something similar in his novel, Norwegian Wood"If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. " (Cited in Farnham Street blog.)

When I was a teenager, I phoned up the poet Paul Durcan, who was on a residency at Trinity College, Dublin. First thing he said was, "how did you get this number?" Once I'd explained that the switchboard had put me through, he was mollified, and very generously spoke for half an hour. About reading, he said to read from the present back to the past. Peter Costello, a friend of my father's and the author of many books, including a biography of the young James Joyce (James Joyce: the Years of Growth, 1882 -1915) and In Search of Lake Monsters, said the opposite: to read from the earliest books towards the present: essentially because it is an inverted triangle in terms of quantity, and you might never get out of the present. Both made good points. Reading the classics, as well as lesser known writers, will give you a sense of the continuity of human thought, and an awareness of the prevalence of the same stories across time told via different techniques. Yes, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes, 1:9), but this need not be a cause for despair, but rather, per the Seamus Heaney title, the mystery of a human chain spanning the human story since we settled to grow crops, and before. (Reading books that are not read much anymore today will give you perspectives that are different, and freshen your thinking. Reading your contemporaries, you will get a sense of how stories are told and structured today; and you will gain a sense of where you might fit, or do not fit, in the current world of writing. Reading works in translation will give you another perspective, and reading those same books in the original will give you an added advantage, in the career sense as a writer, but more important, spiritually or vocationally, it will deepen and widen your field of practice, your inner "sangha".

This is because languages think differently to each other. In Gaelic, or Irish, you cannot "have" anything. Instead, possessions have to be at you. In Spanish, instead of saying, "I dropped the glass," they say, "se me cae el vaso" - the glass falls from me. I am not trying to say that Spaniards abdicate responsibility for their actions, but languages reveal worlds in terms of psychology and national character. And if you are a writer, another language can enrich your work, if you will be disciplined enough to read in your foreign language.

Getting back on point, have you ever read a poem by a young poet that reads like Shelley filtered through the point of view of an Edwardian, filtered through a teenaged shoe-gazing Curehead? That last reference ages me, I know. But my point is, she or he most probably hasn't read the poems that are being published today, whether in journals or in books, and doesn't realise how poetry has moved on the last 100 years(!), into a vernacular, modern voice. Look at the difference between W.B. Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh. Seamus Heaney and all the Irish poets of subsequent generations credit Kavanagh, not Yeats, for breaking the mould and liberating Irish poets into (1) an awareness that the local was worthy of being told, or written, and, (2) that the language of today was a worthy instrument in which to tell it. (Previously, writers like Synge and Yeats were doing the telling; later, with Kavanagh, and subsequently Heaney, the "peasant class" that had been the subjects of that literature became the writers. Tomás Ó Criomhthain did something similar, or more extreme, in Irish, in his book An t-Oileánach, or The Island Man. Within his lifetime, he moved from illiterate dweller within the oral tradition to a man of letters and a writer of celebrated books, in which he simultaneously chronicled the end of a way of life on the Blasket Islands.)

Robert Frost's use of a local, current voice is similar to what Kavanagh did for Irish poetry. (I won't say modern, as that might teeter us too close to modernist, and neither Frost nor Kavanagh were modernists.)

So, why read? Influence, and practice. Look at a child playing soccer during World Cup fever, or a banging a tennis ball against a wall with her older brother's racket during Wimbledon. Chances are, they have been inspired by what they were watching a few minutes earlier, and can't wait to imitate their heroes. They are excited. Writers are the same. By reading the work of those who have come before, and those who are around us now, we begin to understand what has already been done; what is worth doing; and, we find work-arounds, or tiny niches where we might fit, and extend and expand the conversation. It was not by chance that the incredible German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, said: 

 Don't write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty. 

Although I will talk about community in a day or two, I would like to stress that reading is already about community, and communion. In reading, we "submit" to the "vivid and continuous dream" (John Gardner, in Becoming a Novelist) of a book that we trust. We are in communion with the writer's work, with the cultures and lives of the past. How else are we to live in the present and to avoid the trap whereby we repeat the past? This is a general point for us as citizens, but more specifically, as writers we do not only need to associate with other living writers. Some of our most valuable and important lessons come from mentors who are dead, who died hundreds of years before we were born.

We find our own voice by imitation: by letting other writers' voices wash through us. A writer in the wonderful The Paris Review interviews wrote that they learnt to write by following a mentor's advice, which was to read all of Faulkner, and then wash it out by reading all of Hemingway. (It might have been Joan Didion, but I don't have that specific volume to hand.) After much of this kind of reading, and a lot of practice, what remained was her own.

By allowing yourself to be influenced, you will not be copying or plagiarising. The writing mind is a strange filtration system, and reading and then writing under the influence (of writers who inspire us) is where the rubber meets the road.