“Don’t change the way you speak, make sure people understand you,” Lin Manuel Miranda apparently said to Anthony Ramos.
In context, Mr. Ramos was speaking to Daveed Diggs in the BARS Lab and Workshop about a moment of insecurity with his patois.
Was his valid expression of American English one more hurdle between him and success? Or an essential quality that made his art more … well, his?
Many a performer or writer has struggled with the same question. “Do I use my voice? Or the one expected? Do I code switch here?” Mr. Miranda eloquently made the point: both and neither.
That’s the very nature of evolution of language. Our language describes our world, which is ever in flux, and if you want to reach people, they have to understand you. The writing most eloquent, for any moment, hasn’t been written, until that moment. That’s just how time and art work.
It also makes relevant the same advice Larry McEnerney gave me at The Little Red School House in Chicago 20 years ago … “write for your audience so they can hear what you are saying, so it can be received." That’s Shakespeare’s “write for the cheap seats” (he didn’t actually say that). That’s Stan Lee. And now it’s Lin Manuel Miranda.
So why in the world does a bright shiny new writer need to crack a dusty old book? Hasn’t the audience changed? Honestly, do writers need to read? Yes and no, both and neither.
As an occasional Editor for Book Pipeline—and a ghostwriter and consultant in my real life—I am often confronted with really compelling concepts and stunning synopses only to ask authors, “do you read much?” It’s a delicate question, an uncomfortable question, and one that makes me feel like a dick.
Don’t I know something new when I see it? Sometimes I do. Sometimes I see a pile of pages that don’t make sense in any order. They haven’t been written with readers in mind. They haven’t been addressed to their audience with a mind to be understood.
The great conversation between reading and writing has been left out of the craft.
Does new art need to be based on old art? Billy Porter and Basquiat would say yes, or at least “know your references, children” before tearing everything apart and birthing it anew. That has kind of traditionally been the deal. Break the vase, make the mosaic. And yet the pottery had to be solid for both.
We are in a world so far removed from a culture of Literature. We read the articles, we read the excerpts, eventually we’ll see the movie. Audible is the best. Is there any reason to make the actual effort to read a book? Or several? I really, really think there is.
As a writer, you’re not just denying yourself potential mastery by missing out on symbolism, history, and literary reference (now known as Easter eggs in common parlance). Writers who don’t read miss out on viewing their own medium as spectators.
Writers know what writing looks like from the inside, but what does it look like from the outside? Is your work coherent, is it a smooth ride, does it make you nauseous? What do other writers do? What is it about what they do that cracks your mind open and bleeds your heart dry and makes you want to go again? You’ll never know if you don’t read.
I know, as we all know, that we live in a paperless world with 10-second attention spans. If you've made it this far into the article, you’re probably stoned or over 65. Just guessing. But in point of fact, we all read and write 24/7. Haiku tweeting, love letter texting, and the blogging of Facebook have made writers of us all. And yet those micro stories, grocery lists, and racy pics are transactional, first-person narratives in real time.
Is that new language the language of novels? Yes and no. Our voice is forever changed, but telling a story is an ancient human language with some universal expectations.
What is a novel? It’s a story told from the inside. The real inside. It’s visual and alive and tells you everything, like braille for the life impaired.
From my experience, a good novel is lived, time spent in the heads of people I can’t know or imagine taking me on a journey I wouldn’t have gone on, with the intent of sharing—what Octavia Butler called the “interstitium,” or in-between space. When I open the pages, I am no longer me. It is the opposite of social media. And it takes practice to read and to write as though you have read.
I often find myself in the position of suggesting reading as a solution to a whole host of writing ills, none of which is ever voice.
“Don’t change the way you speak, make sure people understand you.”
You don’t have to read to learn to copy other authors. You don’t have to write what has already been written. You don’t need your book to “sound like a book,” but you do need your book to “read like a book.”
Your singular voice, that artifact of the time and space you occupy, is your instrument.
Modern writers break convention and expectation to magnificent effect (George Saunders, Amanda Gorman, Madeline Miller, Edwidge Danticat). They are worth your time and attention.
No matter what the medium, as a writer, you’re putting on a show. And no matter what the medium, you need the skills and craftsmanship to put on a show that is vivid, and meaningful, and coherent.
A novel is not a beat sheet, or treatment, or “bones” to be fleshed out by the players. It’s the whole show. As a writer of novels, you are the cinematographer, the director, the actors ... when you make yourself a sandwich, you’re craft services. It’s a production party of one.
But the result is the same. Either you took your reader somewhere, told them something they didn’t know, showed them something they haven’t seen, and now they feel more human and more connected for it, or you didn’t.
Reading is the indispensable practice required for those skills. And when you read and write and read again, you join the great conversation of understanding.
When you’re understood, you feel the weight lifted of stories set free.
*Featured Image: "Solitude" by Louis Welden Hawkins / Wikimedia Commons