A Writer Must Read

I often tell my kids that they have to read to learn. There’s simply no way around it. This is especially true when they’re no longer in school and they don’t have teachers and assignments forcing them to read. While they may dream of a day when they don’t have a long list of reading assignments, the truth is that they will (or should) spend the rest of their lives reading. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy it. My wife and I began reading to them almost from the moment we brought them home from the hospital, and over the years that’s turned into family reading time each night before bedtime. As a result it’s not unusual to see my kids lumbering around the house with a book in hand without any assignment hanging over their head.

While most of my reading is done for pure pleasure, as a writer I must read. One of the most salient nuggets of advice Stephen King delivers in his memoir On Writing is just that: A writer must read. It’s necessary to get better. You have to observe the craft in its finest form (or not so finest) to really understand how to improve your own work. There’s no way around it, nor are there any shortcuts. If you’re writing and not reading, you’re limiting your potential as a writer.

Reading is what brought me to writing in the first place. Way back in fourth grade when I pulled Richard Adam’s Watership Down from the top shelf of the musty, old school library and checked it out, I started down the path to being a writer. That book subsumed my imagination and took me to a different world. I loved it so much that I read it twice (it remains the only book I’ve read more than once). After I read that book, I decided I wanted to create wonderful stories like that. I wanted to become a writer. Three decades later I took that first step toward being a writer, but by then, I had read many more books and learned much more about writing.

Every time I pick up a book, I learn something. I learn new words, new ways of describing something, or a new approach to creating a scene or imagery. I’m currently reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The way she creates a scene is remarkable – a prime example of “show, don’t tell.” Her use of imagery and words puts the reader right in the middle of her stark, apocalyptic world, which is equal parts horrifying and mesmerizing. The novel spans several decades, but she manages the time shifts expertly so that the reader doesn’t get whipsawed by the jumps along the timeline. I’ve learned a lot from reading her book, and it will make me a better writer.

I could go on and on with examples of how I’ve learned about the craft of writing from reading. Wally Lamb taught me the true art of character development with his books that often delve deep into the psyche of his protagonists (see She’s Come Undone). Khalid Hosseini taught me how to bring the setting alive and make it just as much a part of the book as the main characters (see A Thousand Splendid Suns). Jonathan Franzen, a true literary genius, taught me how to weave a beautiful story from the seemingly mundane interactions of the characters (see The Corrections). His stories aren’t for thrill seekers, but they are beautiful in that they capture the emotional reality of life vs. some fantastic version of it.

There are so many books to read, and so little time, especially as I’m trying to squeeze in time to write myself. Nevertheless, I will always make time for reading, whether it’s just before bedtime or on the train to work, because reading is necessary for writing. A writer must read.

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