Writing and Reading; Reading and Writing

If you want to be a writer, or consider yourself a writer, or are planning to be a writer, do not let me catch saying you don’t have time to read. Ahem. Because, really? You have no business writing if you’re not reading. Everything. All the time. Books and blogs and magazines and the backs of cereal boxes. (Maybe they aren’t so good to read anymore, I’m not sure–I rarely eat cereal these days.) You should be inhaling words from your reading as much as you are flinging words at the page.

Most of us writers come to writing because we loved reading so much. Who among us doesn’t have a childhood memory of being transported to another world by a book? Who among us hasn’t read a book and thought, I wish I could do that. Or even, I could do that way better than he did.

Words in, words out. The more I write, the more I feel I need to read. (Sort of like this weird paradox I described here.)  It is as if I need to fill myself up with enough words so that I have a store of them to spit back out again. Have you ever felt like that?

Just in case you’re not reading everything you can get your hands on, here are a few tips:

Read as a writer

Once you start writing, reading is never quite the same again–because you are paying attention to all the things that slid past before.  Cultivate this habit.  Consider how the author writes description, and dialogue.  What does she do to make the character leap off the page? What kinds of stylistic techniques does he employ? How does setting figure into the story? And how is the book structured? Jane Smiley’s book on reading the novel is a useful starting point. Oh, and you might want to consider reading a book twice.  You’ll be amazed at how much you learn the second time through.

Write about your reading

Lately, as part of a journaling template I’m following in the morning, I’ve been writing a few words about what I’m reading. I find this a helpful practice because it helps me notice. In the book I’m reading now, for instance, I’m admiring the way the author uses fresh verbs and original descriptions. In the previous book I read, I noted how the author did some interesting loops with time.  This noticing is why MFA programs as well at the writing program I teach at requires their students to write essays about their reading.  Because deep reading is an excellent way to teach yourself to write. And writing about your reading is even more effective.

Read in your genre 

In all genres, from mystery to romance to horror, there are certain tropes. If you’re writing in a genre, you need to know these tropes. Here’s the deal: if you’re writing mysteries, it is likely you love reading mysteries. And by reading a lot of mysteries, you’ve soaked in these tropes without even being aware of it. Which is why reading a lot is so good for the writer.

But don’t limit yourself

Branch out from the genres once in awhile. Read a memoir or some heavy literature, or how about a book of short stories or essays? You might be surprised what you find. And it just might inspire you to write something different, too. It can be really good for your writing to fool around in a different genre.  Read dumb bestsellers and obscure classical novels, or at least take a look at them.

Always carry a book or Kindle or something with you

You never know when you’re going to get stuck in a line, or waiting for a child, or when you’ll be early for an appointment. Have something to read. Take it with you to the gym, so you can read it while on the treadmill (they always have boring TV shows on at the gym anyway).  You can’t read if you don’t have something to read with you. Righ?

Okay, those are some of my ideas. How do you read as a writer? Has your reading changed since you started writing? Leave a comment. Or head on over to the Facebook group and discuss.

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Books I Read in January

(Yes, I know–I promised Part Two of the Care and Tending of Writers.  It is all written in my journal, I just need to get it up on the computer.  That will happen next week. Promise, and my fingers aren't crossed behind my back, either.)

Today I'm starting a new series on the books I've read each month.  Why? Well, first of all because if you are a writer or you want to be a writer, you should be inhaling books.  I find that the more words I put on the page, the more words I need in ingest.  Really.  And second of all, because I love reading lists of what other people are reading.  I get all kinds of ideas that way, so maybe you will from mine.

Here goes: Annabench-shakespeare-paris-1147326-h

Fiction

The Garden of Happy Endings by Barbara O'Neal.  I found one of her books at the library and read it cuz it looked interesting. Turns out she writes the kind of books I love–women's fiction extraordinaire.  (The first one of hers I read was The All You Can Dream Buffet, about bloggers and Airstream trailers–what's not to love?) This one got a little draggy in the middle but I stuck with it and I'm glad I did.  It helped that the main character was a Unity minister, and I attend the Unity church here in Portland.  

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel.  This one was a bit of a disappointment.  I love, love, loved, and even adored her novel form 2014, Station Eleven. Lola is an earlier effort and I found it a bit dry and distant.  But she does really interesting things with structure and for that it was worth reading.

Circle of Wives by Alice LaPlante.   A man is murdered at the Westin Hotel in Palo Alto and it quickly comes out that he had three wives.  Slightly unbelievable but a page turner for sure.  The problem for me was that I didn't like any of the viewpoint characters much and the ending was a great, thudding, dud.

Somewhere Safe, With Somebody Good by Jan Karon.  This one is still in progress–I'm about half done.  It is the most recent in the Mitford series of novels–stories set in a charming small town in North Carolina.  There are quite a number of these books, and they are very popular.  I am reading it because I'm interested in how series are put together.  What I find fascinating is that, at least in the first 100 pages of this novel (I'm still reading it), not all that much happens.  And yet–I can't put this book down.  I surmise it is because the conflict is of the day to day sort that we all face–dealing with a chronic health problem that is under control but needs to be paid heed to; annoying friends; befuddling neighbors; spouses we love but whose brains remain a mystery to us. 

Non-fiction

Delancey by Molly Witzenberg.  Another one I plucked off the shelf at the library.  Its a memoir by the writer of the blog Orangette, about the process of she and her husband opening a restaurant. Apparently the pizza place is quite famous as I asked my friend Linda, who lives in Seattle about it, and she said of course she'd heard of it.  I skimmed through parts of this book, but overall I enjoyed it–because I always enjoy stories about people who are doing things, especially when they are creative things.  Oh, and there are recipes–and if you are as obsessed with dates as I am, find this book for the date recipe (short version: saute them in olive oil until the skins turn crispy and sprinkle with salt).

Start With Why by Simon Sinek.  I'm loving this one.  It is business-y, but also of great interest to anyone doing creative work.  Sinek writes about the value of starting from the inside, with your why, instead of your what or how.  He uses Apple as an example of a business that always keeps their why (challenging the status quo to empower the individual), as opposed to their what (selling computers, at least initially) front and center.  His insights into this are brilliant, and I found myself applying them to character motivation and plot in my stories.

Make Your Own Rules Diet by Tara Stiles.  I've not gotten very far in this one, but she emphasizes healthy foods, yoga and meditation, so what's not to like?

Up Next (We'll see if they make the list of books read next month)

Macdeath by Cindy Brown.  This is by a friend of mine.  I attended her book release party last week, which was standing room only as a troupe of local actors did scenes from the book.  Quite entertaining!  This is the first in a series of mysteries set in the world of the theater, and I'm looking forward to reading this one.

Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter.  We used his book Beautiful Ruins as our book-in-common at our first France retreat, and I hear this book is really fun. I think its safe to say that some of us have a bit of a writer's crush on him.  He's speaking in town next month and I'm excited to hear him.  I promise I'll behave.

All the Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  This one is getting rave reviews, and from people whose opinion I trust, not just the critics, so I'm going to bite.  

So that's what's on my nightstand.  What have you been reading this month?

Photo by austinevan.