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Friday, September 14, 2012

Writers Must Read to Write

            Writers have the best job in the world. To be successful in any profession you must stay current, continue to study and learn about new breakthroughs and techniques. Would you go to a doctor who hasn’t completed his continuing education credits? No, because those doctors don’t have licenses anymore. Neither do lawyers or accountants. Writers don’t have continuing education credits or classes to attend because the way we keep current is by reading. And all good writers love to read, writers who say they don’t are untrustworthy, like skinny cooks.
            To be a good writer you must read a little of everything. Not a lot, feel free to indulge yourself with your favorites, but do sample other genres and styles. The more you broaden your tastes and knowledge the more flexible and complete you will be when you find characters and conflicts to write down. Stories need diversity of character to make the world feel whole. And so writers need to diversify, pulling good books from every period and section of the bookstore, even ones you feel you may not enjoy because of personal likes and dislikes.
            I’m not saying you should read things you find objectionable or offensive. Use your own judgment. However, don’t discount a book because of its genre! Most of my pleasure reading falls into the fantasy category, and I like it there. But that doesn’t mean all my favorite books are fantasy. I’ve added a Goodreads widget to my blog page to give an idea of the broad genre of books I love.  There’s classics, religion, mystery, crime thriller, non-fiction, plays, and yes, fantasy. There’s even a Western! Don’t limit yourself, never limit. One of my personal creeds is to never say, “I can’t.” The moment those words slip past your guard and into your consciousness, they’re true. If you believe you can’t, you can’t. And that kind of block is hard to get past. Forget it. Move on. You can, if you work at it. You can, if you want it badly enough.
            Then there are books on writing. Some of these are stiff textbooks that define terms like adverb, adjective, subjunctive, and other classifications of the words we use as story atoms. These serve a purpose, but are hardly engaging enough to inspire us. I recommend Stephen King’s “On Writing,” a fascinating look at the craft by someone who does discovery writing and compares it to hunting for fossils. King believes that stories exist whole and undefiled, but buried and it is up to the writer to dig them out carefully. His stories begin with situations, and he writes them down to see what happens. The entire first half of the book he calls his C. V. or curriculum vitae, which is a Latin term meaning a brief account of a person's education, qualifications, and experience, typically sent with a job application. Essentially a resume, but longer and more detailed.
            King’s C.V. isn’t a list of his education and published works, but it’s a meandering memoir through his formation as a person. He implies, although I don’t think he comes out directly and says, to be a good writer you must have suffered. You must know what pain and loneliness feel like intimately to do the writer’s job of telling the truth through telling a lie. I think that’s fine. We’ve all suffered and bleed sometime. Perhaps not as dramatically as Mr. King, but with no less depth of feeling.
            I do need to put a language warning on this book. If you’ve read his writing, you know King has no issues with using profanity. He never swears to swear- he states his belief that profanity is the language of the ignorant- but if an explicative is the word he thinks fits, he uses it. His discussions on writing are interesting and earnest, and his passion for the craft is palpable. It’s a great read. And it made me better at my work and more honest in my writing.
Another excellent book on storytelling is “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell. If “On Writing” is fascinating, this book is mesmerizing and overpowering. Campbell takes a hard look at the hero’s journey story type. You’ve seen it. We all have. Young hero of humble beginnings is drawn from everything familiar and thrust into a much larger world. Young hero finds a mentor who guides them through and teaches them. Mentor is lost and hero must complete the journey, saving the world through the hero’s own merits. Star Wars. Harry Potter. The Hunger Games. Ender’s Game. Lord of the Rings. Percy Jackson. Around the World in 80 Days. The Odyssey. How many more? Sometimes the answer feels like all of them. I’ll do an entire post about the components of the hero’s journey, but for now I’ll recommend you read Campbell’s book. It’s academic and the language can be daunting, but it’s worth the read and you’ll come out the other side with a better understanding of almost every book you’ve ever read and every movie you’ve ever seen. There’s a reason it’s called the monomyth.
My final piece of reading advice is to re-read. Go back to great books you’ve read in the past, the ones that moved you or changed the way you see the world. A favorite book is both an old friend and a safe place. Ask yourself why you love this book. Are the descriptions vivid? Do the characters feel like real people? Is the story creative and moving? Then try to figure out how the author did that. Look at what’s been done before and learn from it. Try to emulate their style- seriously, go ahead. Practicing styles is one of the ways writers find their own voice, just like learning to speak begins with mimicking the sounds we hear our parents make.
Read every day. Think you don’t have time? Make time. Audio books are possibly the greatest advance in reading since the printing press. Books are available to you now when you’re driving, cooking, cleaning, shopping, anything that involves your hands but doesn’t use all of your brain. Hide books in places where you have to wait, in your car or bag for doctor’s offices, checkout lines, car rider lines at school. You have time, if you want to use it. And write every day. Even a few sentences before bed or scribbled in a notebook. Your imagination grows sharper and stronger with use. Don’t let that muscle atrophy.
Writers have the best job in the world, but it’s one we need to commit to. If you want to be a writer, then you need to read and write. That’s it, then end. If you don’t have time then you don’t want it badly enough or other things are more important to you. That’s fine. Sometimes other things are more important. But if this is what you want, who you want to be, then you find a way. Lawyers, accountants, and doctors have a set number of continuing education credits they have to complete each year.  Writer’s don’t. We’re never done reading or writing. When you finish a book, you open the next one. When you type “The End,” you open a new document and begin again. This is our passion, our commitment, and our very own journey.

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