One of the things that writers often argue about, in writers’ forums and on writers’ message boards, is whether writing is an innate talent that can be honed but not learned, or simply a skill that can be taught to anyone willing to be trained.
Whether you subscribe to one view or the other, a large part of a writer’s honing, or training, or whatever you want to call it, is self-directed. Practice is vital: you don’t have to write every single day (unless you want to), but you do need to write frequently. Outside criticism (from editors, colleagues, writers’ groups) can not only help you improve your work, but teach you how to criticize yourself. And then there’s reading. Reading widely, reading critically–analyzing how other authors handle structure, achieve effects, solve problems, etc.–is one of the best ways to build your skills.
In today’s guest blog post, writer and educator Aimee Weinstein discusses the vital importance of reading, and how it can help you become a better writer.
By Aimee Weinstein
My new relationship with reading started because like many writers, I hate to exercise. I love reading, though, and I discovered the solution to the problem was podcasts. I could listen to podcasts of short stories from various genres while making my way around the gym to use those disgusting and pain-inducing machines. Then, a week or two ago, I was using some leg-torturing device, when there was a surprising twist in the plot of the story in my ears. I allowed the weight to fall and let out a loud, “oh!” causing everyone in the gym to look over at me.
“Podcast” I explained sheepishly, shrugging my shoulders.
The story was titled “Water Child,” and its author, Edwidge Danticat, had made me to drop everything and shout out. The writer in me wanted to know how to do that. How had the plot twisted in such a surprising way that I lost control of myself while listening to it? I rewound a little bit and focused on the section that had so shocked me. The main character calls an ex-lover on the phone but the reader does not have any information about the relationship – how involved it was or why it broke up or anything. But then, instead of the man answering the phone when she calls, the man’s wife answers. CLICK. Everything fell into place with a surprising thump of a nautilus machine.
I listened again to the entire story. I realized that the author uses the telephone as a device to drive the story. We learn about the relationship in the first place because the ex-lover leaves messages on an answering machine. The main character’s parents live in another country and implore her in letters to call them on the phone; they are too poor to call her. And then the misstep of the story happens on the phone. I wondered how I might create a similar device for my own characters to use.
There is so much to be learned from reading. Put succinctly, writers need to read. There’s no substitute.
I realized that this was a pattern with me. A few weeks prior I had read Olive Kitteridge, the Pulitzer Prize winning book of related short stories by Elizabeth Strout. I admired the way the author created a world for the main character, Olive, where everyone around her thinks they know her so well–but actually, she has a completely mysterious inner life that is known only to the reader. The juxtaposition of real life versus inner life fascinated the writer in me.
I then thought about all the books I had read recently and how voracious a reader I really am. I call myself a writer because that’s how I spend much of my life, but the reality is that I read as much as I write.
From Lorrie Moore’s recent novel, I learned about creating a full and deep character. From Pat Conroy’s newest novel, I learned how the location of a story can play such a huge part in the plot that it almost functions as another character. From John Irving, I learned how a plot can stay cohesive even if the story takes place over a long time-span. And these are just the books I’ve read over the past couple of months!
Authors are our best teachers of writing. Their books wouldn’t be published if they didn’t have something to offer the reader, and it’s up to the aspiring writer to pick up the skills they present.
In order to write, one has to read what has come before, and here’s another key to the puzzle – pay attention to the details of the craft. Ask questions. How does metaphor function in the story? Is the overly bold sister supposed to function as the main character’s conscience? How does the mystery writer incorporate clues subtly without giving away the ending? How long should it take for the girl to realize that she’s in love with that vampire? It many sound monotonous, but it’s ultimately true: active reading enlivens creative juices.
If you’re a genre writer, close reading can help you figure out how to better fashion the mystery/fantasy/science fiction world that you want to create. If you write fantasy, it behooves you to read as much fantasy literature as you can, both old and new. The same goes for science fiction writers, mystery writers and even romance novelists. How can a person become conversant in the specifics of his craft if he does not immerse himself in it? Reading is crucial to every writer.
So I’m going back to the gym with my iPod and podcasts ready. I can learn as I listen. Maybe this exercise thing isn’t so bad after all.
Aimee Weinstein is a freelance writer and writing professor based in Tokyo, Japan. Her most recent work can be found in Asian Jewish Life, and she is currently working on a book regarding Japanese/English translation issues in the public sphere. Her blog, TokyoWriter, covers life in Tokyo, writing issues and sometimes her kids, who are ages 10 and 7, and have already discovered the lack of privacy that accompanies having a writer for a mother.