Show me a great writer

A random thought occurred to me this morning as I read an article mourning the recent death of the great British actor, Ian Holm: show me a great writer, and I’ll show you someone who was a great reader, first.

What I mean by this thought is that great writers carefully study and assimilate the writings of others. They take words and phrases and cadences from other writers like jackdaws steal shiny objects. They draw inspiration from them to form their own patterns and nuances, shaping their craft.

It’s an interesting idea, no?

Sometimes, we the readers can clearly see the imitation (although it’s not always imitation, exactly), or we can trace the lineage of a particularly striking piece of writing and link it to a predecessor. This is not to deny originality at all. Great writers are original, but I think that originality comes largely from a deep well of ingesting others’ words beforehand.

There is something thrilling to me about a finely written piece. I appreciate its contours and flavors and colors just as much as any other, more physical form of art like a painting or a piece of sculpture or a gourmet meal. It is very far from an easy thing to accomplish. Sometimes a passage hits me like a brick, and at other times, it grips me like a fever that burns fiercely hot so that I can’t easily set it aside even though it hurts or saddens or pains me. Still other times, I am somehow spellbound and cannot see the genius of a piece of writing until I’ve finished reading it, sometimes over and over again.

It’s a glorious gift.

I love to read; I always have. But I make no claim at all to great writing. I just think that the two are alternate sides of the same coin. I think you have to be a great reader in order to become a great writer.

Finally, a completely different thought in closing: Happy Father’s Day to all of the dads (and sometimes moms, who have to do double duty) out there. For me, the day always brings mixed feelings. Being a father is one of the greatest blessings I have ever known, or will ever know. At the same time, I am reminded of my many shortcomings as a dad. Dads are hugely important in the lives of their children, far more than most of us probably realize or deserve. May God bless you all.

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