One of the questions I get pretty often is, “How did you learn to write?” I have three degrees in English, including an MFA in Creative Nonfiction, but it wasn’t my education that taught me how to write. Nope, I learned how to write by reading. My coursework helped me polish the craft and put language and deeper comprehension around what I learned from reading. But I learned to write by reading, almost exclusively.
The Living Heart of Writing
So when someone tells me they don’t read – and believe it or not I hear that comment regularly – I kind of cringe because I can’t figure out how they know the nuance of a book if they haven’t read them. You can study craft – story arc, sentence structure, characterization, description, etc – but if you don’t how a novel or a memoir or a sestina feels against the center of your storytelling heart, then I imagine you’re going to miss the mark. You may write a correct book, but I don’t know if you can write a living one.
Most of the writers I know who keep writing and find any level of success in what they do are rabid readers. Some writersI know finish a book a day, some more than that. Others read a few dozens books a year, and still others read a book a month . . . and those people sink their teeth in deep, really delving into the how and why of the way the book is constructed.
On a good week, I read an entire book for pleasure. On a great week, I read two . . . plus I read a book or so a week for work, and I read a ton online. Reading is my joy, my escape, my rest, and it’s also necessary for my writing life.
Most writers say the same thing. In fact, Stephen King has a famous quote about the necessity of reading for writers:
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
I completely agree. I don’t always get to read as much as I want – especially with a toddler bent on throwing himself off the highest thing possible living in my house – but I read every day. Sometimes its only in the bathroom and a few minutes before bed, but every single day, I feel my brain with the words that another writer took the time and effort to lay out for me. And I’m a far better writer for it.
The Reading Method I Use
Francine Prose’s wonderful book Reading Like A Writer has a lot of great insight into the processes that writers use when we read books, but for me, it comes down to a simple thing:
- I read to enjoy, and I try to figure out how the writer is making the book enjoyable to me.
Thus, I read with two parts of myself – the story-breather and the story-crafter. The story-breather sucks down words like oxygen. She disappears into the language, the characters, the setting, the plot, the history and lets herself live there. She’s the one who reads really fast, who aches when an amazing poetry collection ends or when her favorite character dies. She’s the one my parents cultivated in me from the time I was tiny.
The story-crafter is the analytical one. She steps back a bit from the story and tries to figure out why that bit of description works so well or why shorter paragraphs are building the intensity in the memoir more quickly. She’s the one who reads more slowly and who walks around trying to figure out why something annoyed her or enrapt her long after she has put the book down. She’s the one my education and my experience as a writer has nurtured.
For me, the process of allowing both of these story lovers is natural, but it is something I’ve groomed in myself. For years, I read with a pen or pencil in hand – making notes and underlining passages. I still do that on rare occasion, mostly with nonfiction, when I really need to understand how a writer put together those words for that effect or when I really want to remember a key quote. Mostly, now, I’ve simply taught myself to read for the experience first but then to engage the how of that experience at moments in the reading experience itself but often for long after.
Maybe an example will help. Right now, I’m reading a cozy mystery novel. I LOVE cozy mysteries, and I have loved the other books in this series. But this particular title isn’t working for me. The author, as best I can tell, got too wrapped up in the setting – which she explains is a real life event that happened in her community – and left behind the story and the characters that are so crucial in a cozy. I totally understand how that could happen; I’ve probably been guilty of it myself. But it makes the book laborious to read – too detail heavy on the surrounding events, not near enough storytelling about the murder and its investigation. So story-breather Andi is bored and bogged down, and story-crafter Andi took the time to figure out why.
I expect many readers do the same sort of analysis and look for what did and what did not work in a book. But for a writer, that kind of analysis is crucial. We need to understand not only what a book made us feel but HOW it made us feel that way.
To build these skills, we need to read as much as we can, especially in the genre we are going to write. Otherwise, we don’t understand the expectations of readers in that genre, and we don’t know how to create a captivating experience for the readers who pick up our work. And that, right there, that’s a shame for us and for the readers who trust us to give them the oxygen of words.
Now, tell me, how did you learn to write? How has reading been a factor in that learning? Any particular books stand out as a place where you learned some really crucial about the craft of writing?
A quick update on my quest to sell 1,000 copies of Love Letters To Writers by year’s end. As of today, I have sold 259 copies, so I’m over the 25% mark at 25.9% to be exact. I’m still pondering new ways to reach readers, and I’m running a couple of small, low-budget ads. But if you have suggestions for reaching readers who could find encouragement and camaraderie in this book, please let me know. I’d love your ideas.