Friday, June 17, 2022

Reading Voraciously--Why It Matters to Writers

I met one of my best friends--whom I later married much to my delight--over books. Early in our friendship, I asked what to offer as a gift for birthday and Christmas. The answer: "Books. Send me a box of used books, a collection of the best ones you've read."

I remember going to my favorite used bookstore to shop that November. I took a little hand-written list, titles I had on hand in my home library, but when I began browsing the bookstore shelves, I was astonished at how many books I knew--and loved.

I think I bought 30 books that day. Everything from children's books (The Dark Is Rising series) to young adult to adult fiction. Fiction was the only requirement--something to get completely lost in.

This tradition continued for five years, until we mutually decided our friendship was destined to be a lot more than friendship. We still keep our separate collections, so many duplicate titles because of those years of book gifts.

But aside from the wonderful romance of this, the book-buying led to two other gifts: I began rereading these favorites, which I always vowed to do but never had time for, and we discussed them. We created our own book club, for old favorites. They became even more beloved.

When I use to work with clients on their manuscripts, I always asked: What are you reading? If a would-be novelist told me, I only read nonfiction (which happened more often than you'd imagine), red flags went up. If the writer wasn't reading at all, more red flags.

A wise friend recently said there are three positions a writer can take: I know, I don't know, and I want to know. Those who do not read, yet expect to write well, are in the I know group. They are assuming they already have plenty of knowledge about story and don't need to steep themselves in more. My wise friend says they live in the most challenging place, spiritually and otherwise, because they don't open the door to learning. They are not teachable. I think writers who read are in the last group: I want to know.

I read a lot. I have two books going right now, as I work on revising some short stories and a novel. One is an oldie--The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared. It's written by a Swedish author, Jonas Jonasson, and it was recommended by someone who took one of my writing retreats many years ago. It's entertaining and quite silly, and the narrator's adventures go on forever, but I'm enjoying it. The silliness relaxes my brain and helps me come up with my own plot ideas. The other is Peter Heller's newest novel, The Guide. Heller is the author of my all-time favorite novel, The Dog Stars. It just arrived yesterday and I can't wait to dive in.

Point is: you gotta read. You gotta be open to learning. I've written and published since the 1980s and I'm still learning. So I'm still reading.

What are you reading right now? Are you reading in the genre you're writing in? If not, why not? How can you become more teachable in the arena where your most intense learning, as a writer, is taking place?

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