From an interview with Robert Lipsyte at Advice to Writers:
What’s your advice to new writers?
One – READ. Sounds obvious but it’s amazing to me how many new writers don’t read enough, and don’t read as writers, looking for examples of how other writers handled transitions, character descriptions, etc. the same way young athletes watch pros at work.
I’m often asked for writing advice, and this is the same answer I always give. No class, no MFA, can take the place of reading. I don’t just mean casual reading, a book here and there — I’m talking about intense, deliberate, READING. Many books, many genres, with the same consistency you give meals, homework, bathing, sleeping, and walking the dog.
Is reading absolutely necessary? Is it possible to learn how to write without reading all that much? Well, sure. But I wouldn’t recommend it. Reading is the core exercise. Reading is the gym. Don’t ask for advice on writing a memoir if you’ve never read one, or how to write a sex scene if you’ve always avoided reading them. Even after digesting a hundred memoirs, a thousand sex scenes, you still might not be able to write one — but will you have learned something? Chances are, yes. Chances are good, in fact, that you’ll have learned a lot, even if you can’t readily articulate it.
A love of reading is what led me to become a writer. I didn’t realize I was teaching myself how to write through reading — I just loved words, and I loved telling stories almost as much as I loved encountering them in books. But besides the exercise of writing (that would be lesson #2: write a lot, write and write and write some more ), all those books I consumed — that voracious appetite — gave me most of the tools I needed to grow as a writer. And as a person.
I don’t know about you, but I can still remember the books that shook me, opened my eyes to different structures and styles, books that invigorated me, compelled me to try new things — because reading them inspired me. Here’s an abbreviated list, from way back when:
Stories of Eva Luna by Isabelle Allende
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke
Jack of Kinrowan by Charles de Lint
Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller
Go ahead and add the various collected works of Pablo Neruda, as well. It’s a mix, yes, and my list of books will be different from yours. Maybe it’ll be War and Peace or Jane Eyre that stokes your writing passion — or The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. Maybe you’ll find a comic book that teaches you something new, or you’ll find inspiration in the first Twilight novel. Whatever it is, whatever you find, I’m glad for you. It’s an incredible feeling to discover a book that not only teaches you something, but inspires you to do more.
This is why it’s so important for writers to read (and everyone else, too). It’s why I’ve also begun to feel slightly ambivalent about NaNoWriMo these last few years. Do I think it’s a great exercise? Of course, and the camaraderie is fantastic. But I find myself wishing there was that much excitement about reading books.
Instead of trying to write a whole novel in a month, why not ask writers to read as many novels as they can in a month? A month in which we deliberately challenge each other to explore outside our genres, to expand ourselves as readers?
Maybe this already happens. Maybe, as writers and readers, we already do this on our own — it’s so natural, such a common part of our lives, we don’t even think of it anymore. I hope that’s the case. There was a long period, a few years after I sold my first book, in which I began to prioritize my writing time ahead of my reading time. It should have been the other way around, and I had to make a conscious effort to change that.
I’m curious, though — what are your books, the books that changed you, or helped you grow as a writer? How do you prioritize reading, or do you even have to?
[Note: I’ve specifically addressed writing, though I’d like to add — hopefully unnecessarily — that of course we should already be reading for reading’s sake. Books are glorious, books are a good part of what keeps us alive and human — books are windows that we love to lean through and fall from, and just keep falling until we land someplace that is more home than home.]