Thursday, September 8, 2011

Reading to Write

There's a reason why I've lumped my book reviews and posts on writing together on one "writer" journal, and it has nothing to do with the fact that Goodreads helpfully copies my posts onto Blogger.  I consider the acts of writing and reading to be closely related, and not only because they both involve words.  They're not just the opposite actions of producing and consuming.  To me, reading is essential to writing.

I'm not the first writer to say so, I know, but I did want to talk about it in some depth.  I've been mulling over the relationship between the two for some weeks, mentally composing this post since I started this blog and made the choice to lump reviews and writing thoughts together.

What I've concluded is that I would sooner skip eating, drinking, and sleep than go without a book to read for long.  Writing is something I do, but reading is a part of who I am.  It's such a small word for something I'd take off a week to do, to the exclusion of all other activity.

While I'm sure I could bore you all with the tales of books I've loved, the ways this love manifested, how I was the only kid on the playground curled up out of sight with a book, I would, instead, like to talk about its relationship to writing.

Without reading, I wouldn't have known, in the first place, that there were people whose job it was to put words on the paper.  Without reading, I wouldn't have found a refuge in various people's imaginations, and begun to populate my own.  Without reading, I wouldn't be aware of the telepathy, as those before me have called it, of one person's words written days, months, centuries before, creating a picture in a stranger's mind.

Some people have found inspiration in writing, in that they've realized they could do it better.  That was not my inspiration.  Mine came when I was reading an interview with Stephen King, and he talked about all the fears living in his head that he put onto the page so they could scare other people.  That isn't an exact quote, so I wouldn't advise trying to find the interview.  I read it sometime in 1990, so it had to have been printed before then.

At that stage in my life, I had an excess of imagination.  I jumped at shadows, turned on every light in the house at night, refused to go to sleep until dawn if I thought there was something in the corner, and rocketed out of the scary basement like something was chasing me.  The notion of getting that out of my head to do the same magic Stephen King performed to make something people wanted to read . . .  Well, the idea had appeal.  Never mind whether my jumpiness came from the fact that I was reading Stephen King books late at night.

I wrote a short story about a girl whose imagination comes to life, and I showed it to an English teacher.  He was a kind soul, underneath his dry sense of humor, and didn't tear my piece to shreds.  Instead, he found things to praise.  I had found something I could do that was mine, not shared with classmates who, frankly, frightened me.  And I kept at it.

That's not all the credit reading gets, though.  If you've checked my Goodreads profile lately, you may have noticed I'm going for a new personal record of 125 books read in one year.  A lot of that can be credited with all the driving I do for work; audiobooks are way more entertaining than the Top 40 rotation.  Even a book I dislike is better than listening to the same 40 songs on an endless loop, interspersed with radio commercials.

But I digress.

It's not just good books that are important to read.  Much as I like to read books that I enjoy to see what works, to spend time with fun and engaging characters and feel pulled into a story, I benefit just as much, if not more, from reading books I don't enjoy.

I know; it's hard to tell, reading my reviews.  I rip into those hated volumes with savage glee.  Part of the joy of reading a bad book is coming up with the best way to explain what went wrong, where the book failed.  I'm quite interested to know, actually.  Because if a book didn't work for me, I want to know why, so I can keep from including those elements in my own writing.  If it's the pacing, then I can see what made the pacing sag, and read through my own pieces with an ear tuned to such concerns.  If it's the characters, I can sift out which traits or descriptions grated so strongly, and keep from using similar descriptors or traits (unless I want the character disliked).  And so on.

I've often gotten the best ideas of what my latest draft needed from reading a lot of books I disliked, all in a row.  I didn't go out to accomplish this, but my random method of book selection reads me to some awful reading experiences.

For all the reasons I've written about above, I can't imagine writing without also taking time out to read.  I don't think I've gone 24 hours without consuming some sort of written material all year, which is just the way I like it.

How about you?  How important do you consider reading?  Do you get anything out of reading books you disliked?  Comments welcome!

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