Some of the earliest and most prevailing advice I’ve heard about writing is to do with the importance of reading. Every class, every book, and every writer have had the same advice. It seems to be the one thing that all writers agree on: good writers are good readers. This week the importance of this advice dawned on me.
Whenever I have a good week of writing, I spend a lot of time thinking about how that happened. I try to dissect what elements of my life worked together to produce the ideal writing conditions. I think about what my schedule looked like, what my attitude was like and what was ultimately influencing me to write. Then, I try to recreate it.
After a few good days of writing this week, I got into my usual thought patterns about the conditions that surrounded my successful writing sessions. As I got thinking, I realized that I had read some remarkably good books over the past few weeks (if you’re curious, I had started reading Louis Penny’s Inspector Gamache series). I had also spent more time reading than I normally do. Both of these factors had a huge unconscious influence on my writing that I never really took note of before.
It’s not that I didn’t logically make the connection between reading and writing. I understood that reading other people’s work would give me examples to model my own work after. Despite understanding this, I tended to brush aside the advice to read more. I would see that advice and think,”yeah, yeah, I got that one.” I wanted the good advice.
This week I realized that “read more” is the good advice. However, it’s not magical advice or an instant cure. Like most everything to do with writing, I experienced the effects of reading in a slow and steady manner. I didn’t realize that I was unconsciously taking cues about how to build a good story as I read well-written books, until I stopped to think about it. I realized that I didn’t have to spend a long time analyzing the specific writing techniques of what I what I was reading–although, this can be a valuable practice–to organically pick up on the author’s technique. Reading in order to see good technique in action is perhaps the biggest reason why so many people encourage writers to “read more.” But, there was another gift that reading gave me when I wasn’t paying attention.
This is the gift of encouragement.
No matter what style of art you practice, there’s something encouraging about reveling in your field. What I mean by this is just spending time surrounded with your chosen form of art. It’s time spent purely enjoying art and reminding yourself why you love it enough to make it. For example, a painter might go to an art gallery, or a knitter might wear a particularly fine knitted sweater. For a writer, reading for pleasure is perhaps the purest way of enjoying and reveling in the art of writing. After reading a good book, I almost always come away encouraged and inspired to return to my own writing.
I think there’s also something to be said about the solitary nature of reading. I also find myself enjoying the broad art of writing when I attend writing workshops or meet with my writing groups, but those experiences can easily be tinged with the urge to hustle. When other people are directly involved there can be the temptation to revel a little less, and spend a little more time playing the comparison game. If you’re not careful, you can come away from spending time with other writers feeling jealous of other people’s success, which is not very encouraging at all. Alas, that is a topic for another blog post.
What I’m trying to say here is that reading has many benefits to the writer. It’s not simply a tool to improve one’s technique. Reading also provides encouragement to the writer, because it reminds them of the potential that words have to affect another human. Reading reminds writers of the reason why they started writing in the first place.
A few days ago I heard an author speak at the local library, and he was asked for writing advice. He gave the advice I’d heard a thousand times: read more. This time, instead of wishing he had shared something more unique and complex, I felt like standing up in my seat and yelling a big, loud, Pentecostal “AMEN.” Of course, I didn’t do that, but for the first time I was completely and utterly satisfied with that answer.
Read more. Write more.