Every once in a while, I hear a writer say something like, “I don’t need to read. I’m too busy writing to read.” Stephen King would have something to say to this, but I keep quiet. Writing is hard enough. I don’t want to make it harder.
For me, though, reading inspires, instructs, and helps me connect with other authors more than any other habit.
Here are three things I’ve noticed about reading’s relationship to writing.
1. Reading Inspires
In an interview with the Paris Review, Maya Angelou said:
I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself. If you pull it, it says, ‘Okay.’ I remember that, and I start to write.
Reading inspires writing. It always has. Writing is a way to say “thank you” to the authors who have touched our lives
Writing can also be an act of rebellion against the way our favorite author’s saw the world. Martin Amis said of his father, Kingsley Amis, “When my father started writing, he was saying to older writers—for instance, Somerset Maugham—it’s not like that. It’s like this.”
Whether in gratitude or rebellion, reading is fuel for your writing.
2. Reading Instructs
In an interview with Charlie Rose, the late David Foster Wallace said, “The way I am as a writer comes very much out of what I want as a reader.”
The more I read, the better my sense for how to craft stories. I understand my characters better. Reading teaches us how to write. Reading shows us the possibilities of language. Sometimes, reading even challenges us to write something better than what we’re reading.
When you read writers you admire, read slowly and carefully. Ask, “What was he trying to do when he wrote this? How did she craft this sentence? Why does this create such a powerful emotion in me?”
3. Reading Connects
I have a few friends who are writers, and whenever they write a book, I try to read it. I know what it’s like to put my heart and soul into ink and pieces of paper and have no one I know read it. I also know what it’s like when a friend tells me, “I read your book. It was great!”
Before I interview a writer, I try to have some familiarity with the books they’ve written. I may not read everything they’ve written, but I’ll read something. I do it because I want them to know I understand them, that I care.
For writers, reading is about relationship. These other authors, they’re our friends, our co-laborers, our kin, whether we know them or not, whether they’re dead or alive. By appreciating the work they do, we appreciate ourselves.
To Be a Great Writer
To be a great writer takes time. I understand you’re busy, that you may not have two or three hours a day to read. That’s fine. You won’t hear any guilt tripping or condemnation from me. Life is hard. Why make it harder?
However, if you want to be a great writer, you will have to find time to read. Philip Roth talks about his writing habits:
It’s work. Just endless work. There isn’t time for any bullshit. I just have to work all the time, very hard, and cut everything else out.… I write from about ten till six every day, with a hour out for lunch and the newspaper. In the evenings I usually read. That’s pretty much it.
How many hours do you spend reading per week? How has your reading empowered your writing?
In the next lesson, we’ll talk about how to get the most out of your reading. Click here to continue.