Writing & reading

The unread volumes are stacking up, like incoming planes over LaGuardia at five in the afternoon. My books-to-be-read shelves are ready for Dewey Decimal System sorting.

Start with the recently-released novels by renowned authors Richard Russo, James Ellroy and Pete Dexter. (Does Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland belong in that group? It’s in a holding pattern, too.) Add popular American histories of the last few years, such as Tony Horwitz on explorers in North America before the Pilgrims, Hampton Sides on Kit Carson and the Old West, yet another title about the Plains Indians and Custer, and the story of the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth. Don’t overlook sports, in the form of Pete Sampras’ autobiography and Sports Illustrated scribe Scott Price’s memoir of living in Europe. Remember the biographies, too, including those of blues harmonica legend Little Walter Jacobs and the late, great George Plimpton. And there is always a host of works by mystery and crime mavens James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, James Crumley, Laura Lippman, Andrew Vachss, Don Winslow and others. Even a literary classic is waiting to land in my lap; I’ve been intending to resume my once-annual rite of spending an evening re-reading The Great Gatsby. (Is this a guy’s list, or what?)

So why are these volumes serving as wallpaper instead of getting read? It’s become increasingly apparent to me that I am reading fewer books as I write my own novel. It’s a habit I find frustrating and, frankly, embarrassing.

If you want to pursue creative writing, if you want to write books, you ought to be an avid book reader. I was rather surprised when I joined a writers’ workshop for the first time and discovered that’s not always the case. Roughly half of the storytellers around the table in that first group said they rarely read books. In the overall scheme of things, they are exceptions.

At our Saturday morning workshop here at the library, my colleagues Joanne and JoAnn, both fine writers with novels in progress, use reading to help them with the work they bring in. “It gets me writerly-ish,” said one. “It makes me pumped that I’m going to write my own awesome novel,” said the other.

The advantages to reading as you write are easy to enumerate. Reading primes the writing pump. Reading immerses you in putting words together and gets you excited about doing it. In short, reading makes you a better writer. Reading also can entertain you. Reading a chapter of a novel can be a good way to relax. Getting lost for an hour or two in another writer’s imaginary world may take the edge off your anxiety about your own work. Finally, reading can dangle out there as a reward for keeping to a regular writing schedule. When you reach your day’s quota of scenes or pages or words or hours, what could be better than sitting down with a good book?

Where there are pros, there inevitably are cons. Often they are the flip side of the same coin. Reading can distract you, not only from your writing, but also from the important thinking you should do about your story when you aren’t at your desk. In other words, someone else’s story can take you too far out of your story. It can subconsciously worm its way into your own work, affecting your style, your plot, your characters. As you review your latest chapter, you may realize that your hero or heroine is speaking in the language and cadence of the protagonist of the novel on your bedside table. Finally, reading a good book might be discouraging. It could prey on your self-belief, making you doubt that you can put down a story as compelling and artful as the one you are reading—so why bother trying?

There’s more to the reading-writing nexus, though, than just the mechanics of craft. It has to do with becoming part of a community. Here’s what Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon said the other day to Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air”:

“All of us are looking for people who will get us, who will love the same things that we love. Reading, getting lost in a book, provides you—as soon as you are able to do that as a child—it provides you with this immediate fulfillment of that longing and that desire. You get. . . a sense of connectedness. . . . You have the urge to share it. You want to talk about it. You want to be with other people who also love it. That’s part of being a reader, too. Just learning how to read and how to love books and stories, it primed me to want to then turn and try to make them myself. . . .I love this stuff so much I want to make more of it.”

Should we workshoppers read books as we are writing your own? Yes, of course we should.

James Ellroy, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Carolyn Kellogg on the Barnes & Noble Review website, said, “The greatest education you’ve ever had as a novelist is the books you’ve read.”

And we should never stop learning.

—Alex McNab

Published in: on October 14, 2009 at 6:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

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