“Writers are terribly lucky because one of the ways of training our skills is reading. And of course I love to read. But in reading we discover things that the good writers always do. We discover things they don’t do. And in reading bad books, we discover things we don’t want to do.” Madeleine L’Engle
Enough said, right? I don’t even really need to blog about this one because it’s such a no-brainer.
Well, not quite. Believe it or not, there are writers who simply do not read. In my fiction workshop days, my instructor, Ari, warned my class to always have a ready answer when he asked us what we were reading. Of course, a busy college student could stammer some excuse, “Well, I’m taking five classes and working part-time—I barely have time to write, so when am I going to read?”
I understand how busy everyone is, I really do. I had less sympathy before I had two children, but now that I do, I have to schedule my reading around two long, daily commutes, working five days a week, taking care of two kids twenty-four seven (well, the older one is in pre-school, but his little brother is worth two kids most of the time), and even writing this blog—but I do read.
The back of a box of cereal doesn’t count, either. I suppose if Cheerios started printing serial novels on the back of each box, I’d be all over it. But I’m really talking about books. Nowadays, with smart phone technology, iPads, or your choice of Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes and Noble’s nook, you can download classics for free. Never read Little Women? Now’s your chance. When you’re waiting to renew your driver’s license at the DMV, or if you’re in the theatre, waiting for a movie to start, you suddenly have that elusive time-to-read that you’ve been looking for.
Okay, so that’s a start on when you can read; now, what about the why? I’ve noticed reading makes a significant impact on what and how I write. I am at my best when I read something that inspires me to pick up the pen, a book that awakes the desire to create something that others will be excited to read.
I also love to read books written by and about the authors I admire. The quote above, from Madeleine L’Engle, is an example of one of her many nuggets of wisdom. The book Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life (Writers’ Palette) is a compilation of her own writings and advice to other writers. With every page, I find something that speaks to me. I can say the same for Stephen King’s On Writing, although it is a completely different book.
I can hear the excuses already: all of this sounds wonderful, but there are plenty of other things that inspire—good music, beautiful sunrises, people-watching—and I agree. But it’s not just about that. Many people read to escape or for entertainment. But we writers must also read as a part of our job descriptions. We’re just fortunate that we can enjoy this part of our vocation.
Writers who don’t read not only do their readers a disservice, but they ultimately harm their writing. And I’m not just talking about knowing what is and isn’t going to sell (although that’s part of it, if you want to publish); with everything we read, either good or bad, we grow. I think every writer should have a little bit of an internal editor, something that switches on when we read, looks for good things to glean and bad things to discard. If you read a book that makes you want to avoid that author for good, what turned you off? If you can pinpoint it, then you know not to do the same thing in your own writing. The same goes for reading something you enjoy. I remember when I first read Douglas Adams’s The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His style was so unique, not to mention hilarious, that I found myself trying to imitate him. Of course, my story was nothing like his, but I wanted to grab my potential readers, just as he grabbed me.
So you writers who don’t read—get with it! Is your writing so perfect that you don’t need to sample anything else that’s out there? Are you too “busy,” and you’ve chosen to sacrifice what I consider a necessary part of every writer’s job? I wouldn’t care to dine at a restaurant where the chef never eats, and I don’t think I would enjoy a book by an author who doesn’t read.