Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Of Writing, Reading, and a Rant

Warning: I feel a rant coming on.

Look, I’m no authority on how reading affects the writer's brain or creative process other than what I know intuitively, logically and via personal experience, and what I've gleaned by reading about this issue, and from talking with other writers.

But I do know this: you can't be a writer if you are not a reader. A big reader.

Seems to me writers have to be readers by default, else how would any of us even know we want to write in the first place? Maybe that's a little too simplistic; the urge to communicate is not limited to marks on paper, after all, but I'm talking about wanting to write so that others can read what one has written. How else do we get that urge other than from experiencing writing first as a reader?

We all start out as readers before we are writers.

And yet in many classes and workshop I run, I'm gobsmacked by writers, in the early stages of their writing life, who claim not to be especially interested in reading and/or say they don't have time to read.

Here's what I say: If you don't have time to read, maybe you don't really have time to write either.

Let's say all you have available to devote to writing is a two hour chunk of time per a week. I'm suggesting you read for an hour and write for an hour, and over the long haul, the writing will be far better than if you had written for those full two hours.

Reading feeds writing. Reading good writing opens the door to a deeper understanding of craft, possibility, creativity. Reading teaches us to think as writers, and to know, in our bones, what it feels like to be consumers of writing.

Can vocal students NOT listen to recordings of vocal performances? To songs? To the radio, CDs, to each other? Do hopeful downhill ski racers progress by watching cross-country competitions, or by watching no skiing at all? Are there visual artists out there who rarely look at others' paintings? What would happen to a chef who rarely ate other chefs' cooking?

I don't get it and don't think I ever will. Most writers, if they've spent enough time thinking about what it is about their craft which they love, realize they are enthralled not only with the act of writing, but by the "moving parts" of writing, which we only notice by reading -- individual words and the millions of ways they can be put together, meaning and language, story, the cadence of words strung together, the rhythm and style of favorite lines. So why wouldn't we always want to experience more of that?

I believe a writer's reading life has a lot to do with what kind of a writer one chooses to be, or can continue to be. I love to read from many different genres and media, but it wasn't until I realized just how much nonfiction I was reading that I realized it was what I mostly wanted to write. The more I found my way to the top of the creative nonfiction reading pile, the more excited I was to try to secure a place there myself. In that sense, I feel that writing, as a personal act as well as the process which produces a public piece of literary art, cannot grow out of anything except aspiration.

And when the writing is not going so well, the answer is often not more writing. The answer to a writing problem is often more reading.

What say you?

P.S. Read anything good lately?


Amy Sue Nathan said...

I agree! Ready inspires me -- to aim higher, try harder, write more. Reading teaches me how other writers do things I'd like to emulate -- and also shows me things I'd never want to do. I know there are writers who don't read - and I don't get it. I wonder how they can write.

Different strokes, chocolate/vanila, as they say.

marydaylo said...

It's so true. Reading is the fiber that keeps the writer's artistic digestion moving along. I found this out a year or so ago, when for no apparent reason, I fell out of the habit or reading. I had to force myself back into the habit, had to make specific space in my life for as much reading as possible. Thanks for a very useful reminder.

Andrea said...

I have the opposite problem--if I had two free hours for writing each week, I'd spend them both reading and then stay up late an extra hour and read some more...maybe I'm just feeding my future writing endeavors. I'm right now reading Stories and Novels by Shirley Jackson edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Love, love, love.

Andrea said...

P.S. I'm also amazed by people who love to read but don't have any interest in writing...for me the two are inseparable.

Laraine Herring said...

Rock on, Lisa. It never ceases to amaze me every semester. They whine, whine, whine about the reading. I don't understand it, truly. I would have collapsed without reading. I don't understand .... I haven't found the argument that seems to work with them yet to convince them. Sigh ....

fullsoulahead.com said...

I don't get people in general who don't read, but writers who don't read? Can't compute.

Uli said...

You are so right, Lisa. I had a creative writing professor who always told us that in order to write well we needed to learn how to read well first. I was frustrated by that advice, but am shocked now by the details I remember -- 25 long years later -- from the short stories we read in that class.

It's the "knowing in our bones" part that's so important; we read, and we enjoy the reading, but eventually -- passively! -- we learn to recognize good, bad, different, possible, etc. Writing well is so hard -- who wouldn't want to get better at it by doing something so easy??

Thanks for the great rant!

kario said...

I can't imagine not reading. My problem is that sometimes reading is my excuse to put off the writing, but ever since I was a little girl I've longed to be able to create a world in which the reader could crawl and immerse themselves for a short time. That is the part I love so much about reading - that it inspires me to write!

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

Great post. If I have a problem with a WIP I go ferreting in other novels. Not to copy them - to absorb the spirit of what I enjoy in them as a reader. I usually find at a subliminal level that I then find the right way with my own novel.

Too many people these days learn storytelling from movies and TV. That's not to say you can't learn good storytelling lessons from those media; but prose works in a different way. Writers of novels need to get stories in the form they are going to be writing.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. I spent the whole weekend reading The Girl who Played with Fire, tearing through it to get to the end. I didn’t write a thing, but I’m very glad to have read the book and enjoyed it.

Unknown said...

I can't imagine not reading. Reading is what made me want to be a writer in the first place. I love it and it will always come above writing in my life. I may not always be a writer, but i'll always be a reader.

Julie said...

Absolutely agree. Wanting to be a writer and not reading, no way. But then I just have a complete mental disconnect when someone tells me they don't read .... anything; or when I walk into someone's home and there is not a single book, magazine or newspaper to be found. They seem to get a sense of what is happening in the world and what they consider entertainment by watching Family Guy or the Simpsons. (Sorry don't mean to offend anyone, guess I don't get those either.)

Doug Bruns said...

Thanks for the rant. You state a simple logic, yet like so many simple things--and complex things, for that matter--I've overlooked the logic for years. Sort of. I understand the link between reading and writing, and if, given my druthers, I'd likely spend those two hours reading, not writing. But it never settled on me before how, like now, when the writing is not going well, the reading isn't happening either. Like I said, I am sometimes obtuse. A good lesson. Thanks and read on!

Anonymous said...

A great piece. I definately agree with this. I go in and out of trends with regards to reading alot.

But whenever i am reading often (doesn't matter if it is a novel or a blog) i find my creativity, writing style and even my speech improves