Sunday, March 6, 2011

Reading to Become a Better Writer

This past weekend I was reminded of the joy of reading good books.  This reminder came unexpectedly, via a small New England writing conference called Writer's Day, hosted by New Hampshire Writer's Project.

I've attended Writer's Day for two years.  Two hundred writers from all over New England gather each spring for really good workshops, intense networking, pitch sessions with agents and publishers, and a stellar keynote speaker.  Each time I go, I am impressed with
the quality, and how much inspiration can be packed into just one day.

My inspiration this year came from the keynote speaker, Paul Harding, author of the recent Pulitzer-winning novel, Tinkers. 

Harding read the opening of Tinkers, "George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died," telling us a bit about the story, which is loosely based on his grandfather's life.  Then he spoke about his effort, as a writer, to align his life and his writing as much as possible.

It's an old myth that creative artists must be divorced from real life, that good art is only created in a reclusive environment.  I crave solitude to do my writing, solitude with no interruptions, no responsibilities, just as you might.  But as a committed writer, someone who is serious about her work, I also know I get much juice from my everyday life.  From my every day come observations on how people talk and interact, which I use to create believable characters.  From my every day, I can understand dilemma and conflict, so it can appear on my pages.  Here was a writer who has won the top prize for fiction, telling us this.  I felt quite relieved to know we were all on the same page.    

But it was during the questions session after his talk that Harding gave the most useful reminder.  He spoke about the need to grow as a creative artist, become a consistently better writer.  This comes from the intersection of everyday life and our writing life, but it also comes from our immersion into good literature on a regular basis.

Become a better writer by reading the best writing you can find, he said.  That's the way to continually grow.

When I got home, I looked at the pile of books on my bedside table.  There are always more books than I can manage.  I wanted to see if the books I'm currently choosing to read are helping my writing life--or are just ways to zone out.  I actually love "zoning out" with books--reading those books that are like mind candy and don't inspire me one whit.  But I also am deep in the middle of revising my next novel, so I can't feed my creative self a junk food diet.

I had three books on my table and one in my car:
Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Edinburgh by Alex Chee
The Color of Water by James McBride

These are not lightweight reads.  But they are rich like good art should be.  They each teach me, educate me, to new ideas.  They are examples of the kind of writing I need to learn from.

When I began my M.F.A. program, my teachers asked me to make up a reading list for each semester.  I was supposed to select classics and modern books I hadn't read, that I wanted to give myself permission to read--finally.  I was supposed to learn.  I remember how my adviser that first semester crossed out 20 of the titles and replaced them with better choices.  I didn't know, at the time, what I needed to aspire to--in my choices of books.  She made me read authors I would never have chosen:  Banana Yoshimoto, Anne Carson, Jose Saramago.  And acquainted me with books that changed both my view of literature and my writing.  These authors made me a better writer.  Beautiful language is inspiring to the creative self.  It generates in us an enthusiasm to write, just as seeing great art gifts us with a sense of inspiration and joy at our own creative possibilities.

Some of my students and clients over the years have told me they actually avoid reading good writing while they are working on a book.  I used to do this too.  The reasons were two-fold:  (1) I was afraid I would somehow uptake the language or ideas and unconsciously place them in my own work, or (2) I was so defeated as a writer that reading beautiful books made me feel worse about my own lack of effort/creativity/possibilities.

The cure for this is writing practice.

If you are writing regularly, you are producing original ideas (whether you believe it or not, this eventually begins to happen).  You won't steal other people's writing or ideas because you are generating so many of your own.  There is a sense of abundance, rather than lack.  Words are plentiful; there's no need to feel you won't have enough good ones.

If you are writing regularly, you are also buoyed up by this practice.  It becomes like breathing, like sitting down to eat, like brushing your teeth.  You put words on paper and you're doing your creative work, so your sense of jealousy or envy of "successful" writers gradually goes away.  You realize they too are practicing their craft.  They too are working hard at what they desire to bring out into the world.  We're all in the same boat.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Make a list of books you are currently reading.  What's hanging around on your bedside table, your desk, your living room?  If you're not reading, think about why.  (We all have no time these days--that's a real reason but not a good one if you want to be a better writer.  Is it easier to watch the evening news than inspire your creative self?  Maybe reading needs to sneak back into your life, bringing its amazing benefits?)

2.  Add two books to the list that might bring you more inspiration as a writer--upgrading your creative inspiration.  Maybe you're studying how to write better dialogue.  Find a book that does this well.

3.  Spend 20 minutes today or sometime this week writing a letter to one of these writers you admire.  Tell her or him why you love their work, why you are grateful they took the time to create it.  Admit to your envy and sour grapes, but also admit to your gratitude.  This person is showing you the way to become a better writer.

4.  Finally, read.  Make time this week for reading.