Nearly every talented writer, published or no, recommends that for a writer to be any good at their craft, they should read voraciously. And a writer shouldn’t only read what it is they want to write, but beyond their form, genres and comfort zones. So while Natalya may have a present interest in finishing a novel with superheroes in it, she is not going to only read books written about them. And just because Natalya may want to write a short story in the stylistic vein of one of her literary heroes, that should not mean she only reads the works of whichever author that happens to be. Honestly, how else would she find and emulate said heroes if she were to not read them. She has multiple literary heroes, by the way, and we see no signs of that number decreasing anytime soon. In the interest of developing her own voice, Natalya has a plethora of influences from which to choose. We’ve all heard how reading broadens horizons, but for writers, the removal of limitations in our ability to pursue our art makes reading even more of an exciting prospect.
I hope you notice that when I mentioned Natalya is working on a writing project, she is still reading things other people have written. It is a primary complaint in November during with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) that writers cease to read. I’m not threatened by a month’s hiatus in order to buckle down on that novel writing, but I do find the concern valid when the critics surface with accusations toward writers who rarely read during the course of the year. I disagree with any blanketed accusation, of course, because I know plenty of participants who continuously read, but I also know many self-identified writers who read infrequently and within limited scope. The only thing more haunting is when said writers do not include the better-written works when they do read. I am not interested in entertaining a debate as to whether anyone has the right to tell a person what they can read or not. What I am interested in is echoing the import of reading when and where you can, in diverse forms, by those who excel in the craft.
If you are interested in being a hobbyist rather than the artist, that is fine. Even so, I would recommend the benefits of reading more like an artist a necessary aspect of your writing hobby. There is a pleasure in finding unexpected words, forms, and ideas as well as finding ways to incorporate them into your own work. Reading something new and/or brilliant is refreshing and has a reinvigorating effect.
I used Natalya as the Writer example, because she happens to be the more disciplined creative writer of the two of us. She is certainly the more prolific. And the focus she brings to the art leaves me blushing. As a writer, she does read for the pleasure of it, but she also benefits from the craftsmanship. When reading Italo Calvino, her teacher can identify the influence in the work that immediately follows. In her developing fascination with Jack Kerouac, Natalya not only seeks out and copies down his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” but she is beginning to interpret and apply them with the intent to practice and experiment with her writing.
When we included the (embarrassingly unedited) R3 challenge/prompt: “If I could’ve written this story, I would have” in the Summer Writing Program, it was with the idea that the writer is reading and finding writing they admire and/or would want to emulate. Not only is the encouragement there in R3 to share good art with the community, but to remind the writer that reading for inspiration, influence and a personal challenge is a good thing.
Am I daunted by great works, humbled and sometimes made too small in their shadow? Sure. However, neither can I help but want to participate in creating something masterful of my own. Reading Italo Calvino makes me want to write like him, and as well as he did. I am not threatened by the prospect that I may come up short–my respect is spacious enough that I’m bound to–but that doesn’t preclude my own excellence. I read in a Tin House interview with Karen Russell (Swamplandia!) that she has a fondness for Calvino; which makes sense. I needn’t rank the two writers and am encouraged by knowing that Russell has found an excellence of her own (and she gets better and better).
Natalya and I have discussed Jorge Luis Borges in recent months; we revisit him. His short story is a thing of beauty and the short story form is one Natalya claims to struggle with at present. Borges’ style challenges her approach and will likely help it. This is where I would encourage a writer into taking the step beyond sharing a story you wish you’d written, to talking about the ‘whys and wherefores’ with someone and how the work/author has made or could make your writing life better. (I will have to add this step to the program next year.)