Earlier this month I applied for the MFA program at Bennington College. I aspire to land a full-time collegiate teaching gig at some point, and my BA from Delaware doesn’t seem to be enough.
Anyhow, the Bennington people were cool, but I wound up deciding it wasn’t quite what I wanted. Namely, after writing nonfiction for the past 18 years, I wasn’t all that jacked about, eh, learning how to write nonfiction. Not that there isn’t room for learning—there always is. It’s just, well, I don’t think it would have been fun.
I digress. Along with my application, I had to submit an essay about “My Reading Life.” I’m not saying it’s awesome or even especially grand, but this is what I wrote …
My reading life is, technically, awful.
I can’t say that’s the best way to start off an essay of this ilk, but it’s the God’s honest truth. Oh, I read. And read. And read and read and read. Yet perhaps the greatest drawback to writing books (and especially, in my case, nonfiction books) for a living is that 95 percent of what one reads relates directly to the subject of his latest project.
In other words: Over the recent 2 ½-year span during which I researched and wrote Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, I read between, oh, 60 and 80 books. Among the titles were Black & Blue: A Smash-Mouth History of the NFL’s Roughest Division, Ditka: An Autobiography and The ’85 Bears: We Were the Greatest. Did I aspire to dig into another Timothy O’Brien gem, or to finally finish Manning Marable’s remarkable biography of Malcolm X (I’m up to—sigh—page 73)? Of course. But to channel the great Russ Klettke, a guy’s gotta eat.
Hence, my reading life is, technically, awful.
But is it really?
Truth be told, there’s significantly more to reading than simply finding the 100 greatest writers (a list that, if it exists, shouldn’t) and pouring through their material in a zombie-like state. Back when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Delaware, I didn’t merely read Sports Illustrated—I studied it. The transitions. The turns of phrases. The word choices and lede structures and subtle tone shifts. I loved how Gary Smith wrote with long, sweeping phrases and how Bill Nack preferred to hit the reader with. Choppy. Bricks. Like. This. There were little phrasing dandies that I stored in the back of my cranial lobe and kept for future usage (“The Steelers’ Franco Harris knew whereof he spoke”), and cleaver devices that, to this day, wow me (Rick Reilly’s Marge Schott profile remains the industry standard).
Now, some 18 years after my graduation, I continue to approach text in such a way. And here’s the beauty: What you read matters less than how you read it. Really, it’s true. Not all writers are created equally, but all writers have their strengths and their weaknesses; their highs and their lows. So, for example, although Liam Ford’s biography of Soldier Field wasn’t the smoothest flowing book I’ve ever read, the author’s ability to weave statistics into a narrative blew me away. Meanwhile, though Sweetness, Payton’s 1978 autobiography, was (intentionally) written at a 10th grade reading level, it was meticulously organized by Jerry Jenkins, the ghostwriter.
Are there writers I love? Writers whose material I dash toward at first opportunity? Of course. David Maraniss is, for my money, the best biographer of our time. Jonathan Tropper’s fictional dialogue skills are unmatched. Mark Kriegel’s work is raw and gritty and fierce, and O’Brien can plunk a reader out of his chair and place him in the scene within 100 words. But even when I’m relaxing on a beach, enjoying my favorite authors alongside a tropical drink and a chunk of pineapple, I’m jotting down notes in the margins (a practice my wife equates with sacrificing the first born) and underlining unique words and trying to grasp how they brought forth such mastery.
In a sense, that’s what led me to apply to Bennington College. When I’m sitting there, fingertips coated in blue ink smudges, book pages bent up and down, I’m at my absolute happiest. As cliché as it probably sounds, writing is who I am and what I want to be. It’s my happiest place; my best endeavor; the one task (along with stealing my daughter’s Halloween candy from her bag) that has brought me genuine success and fulfillment. Just as I love the challenge of understanding other writers, I love the challenge of staring down a blank page, knowing that creativity awaits.
So, yes, my reading life is, technically, awful.
But it’s also, technically, wonderful