One of my teen writers was talking to me about a book she was reading this past week. In the space of three sentences, she had diagnosed why the writer’s technique was working and – even more importantly ― applied what he had done to her own work. I couldn’t have been more thrilled if I’d suggested it myself.
Writers need to read in much the same way that fish need to swim and birds need to fly. We’re luckier than artists who have to find a hospitable museum in which to stand at an easel and copy master works. All we need to study the beauty and utility of great phrasing, technical transformations and moments of the sublime is to buy or borrow a book.
In my novel classes, I often ask my students to read passages of writing that have stunned me. One thing I’ve noticed, having taught the class several times now, is that I never get tired of the way these pieces are constructed, of the skill and deceptive ease the writer used to craft them. It’s a joy to analyze them in class, but an even greater joy simply to read them, over and over again. Great writing never palls on us. I can re-read Fitzgerald’s description of Gatsby’s blue garden a thousand times, and always find something to celebrate. Or admire how skillfully Jennifer Weiner introduces us to her character of Maggie in In Her Shoes.
But that’s chick-lit, I hear someone saying, as they turn up their noses. Sure it is. I firmly believe writers should read widely, without prejudice. Without snobbery. I’m as well versed in the classics as the next writer, and better versed than most (pun intended) in poetry. And certainly I read acclaimed award-winners, too – literary fiction of rare and elusive beauty. There’s a Man Booker nominee on my bed stand right now. But there’s great stuff in chick-lit and mysteries, in mainstream fiction and even – be prepared to gasp ― in historical romances. Moments when the author reached, and her reach exceeded her grasp. (Points if you know what poem that’s misquoted from.)
I often suggest that writers buy a copy of Francine Prose’s marvelous Reading Like a Writer, which is chock-full of the type of writing snippets that I bring to class, rich in writing technique and moments that take our breath away. It’s a great first step to begin to understand how to read like a writer. But the other way ― and here the great Stephen King agrees with me ― is simply to read everything that crosses your path. King says: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
We’re writers because we love reading, because we grew up reading, and because, as adults, we still read. It’s the wellspring of inspiration for us all, the reason why we’re willing to grapple with the words and fight that niggling fear of the blank page. And, as it should be, it’s our reward for a day of writing well.