In December 2000 Susan Sontag wrote an essay for The New York Times on the relationship between writing and reading.
…to write she says is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.
We are often our first and most critical judges, she maintains, referring to the stern inscription Ibsen put on the flyleaf of one of his books:
To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.
Writing, reading, rewriting and then rereading our efforts sounds like an never-ending cycle of punishment – especially if as a writer you are as exacting and unforgiving as suggested by the Ibsen quotation – yet this, Sontag says, is the most pleasurable part of writing.
Setting out to write, if you have the idea of “literature” in your head, is formidable, intimidating. A plunge in an icy lake. Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade, edit.
Revising after reading is a second chance (or third or fourth or fifth or…) to get it ‘right’ – to be clearer, or deeper, more eccentric, or eloquent. As Sontag writes:
You want the book to be more spacious, more authoritative. You want to winch yourself up from yourself. You want to winch the book out of your balky mind. As the statue is entombed in the block of marble, the novel is inside your head. You try to liberate it. You try to get this wretched stuff on the page closer to what you think your book should be — what you know, in your spasms of elation, it can be.
When it goes well, you can experience that most rare of pleasures – a reader’s pleasure – of what you yourself have written on the page. Invariably, it is the love of reading which prompted you to try and write in the first place. Getting absorbed and ‘lost’ in a book is surely one of our greatest pleasures and, I think, achievements. As Virginia Woolf famously wrote in a letter: Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.