Why did you start writing? What pushed you to tell your story? We all have different journeys that have led us to discover writing and the part it plays in our lives. But if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that most (if not all) of our journeys into the writing life may be traced back to books.
Was there one book that inspired you? One author or story that provided the spark for you to start dreaming of writing for yourself? Was it a lifetime of stories, books, and poems?
I grew up in a house that held books in high esteem. Picture albums from my early childhood will demonstrate how early I began to carry books around with me and make my own scribbles. Some of those books that my parents read to me even before I could read for myself have carried with me throughout life. They’ve served as companions and playgrounds for my imagination, but those same books also became the inspiration to write stories of my own as well as the textbooks that taught me to put my words on the page.
The books we read not only inspire us as writers, they shape us. Reading fuels writing.
We need to take this seriously. What we read as well as our commitment to the reading habit will either help or hinder our writing. Cultivating healthy reading habits is critical for the sustainability and success of the writing life.
Ask yourself, what is fueling your storytelling? What words are filling your mind and your imagination?
Reading is a lot like nutrition. You get out what you put in. Deprive yourself of books, and you’ll find the fountain of your words will run dry. Feed yourself with a balanced diet to grow and develop as a writer as well as a reader.
Make time to read.
I believe this is just as important as making time to write (the whole premise of Write 100!). My own experience has taught me that I am a much more productive writer when I am actively reading. I often get ideas for my own work even while I’m reading someone else’s chapter.
There are many, many reasons why a reading habit is good for us, but it is essential for writers. Books are our training ground. We can’t expect to be able to create our own work without learning from others. The best way to do this is to make reading a part of daily life. Let words and stories and books of all sorts infiltrate your life. Be intentional about creating time for reading, no matter how busy things get.
Take a book to work and squeeze in a couple of chapters over lunch. Read before bed. If you can manage it, take a book to the gym and read on the stationary bike. Give yourself permission to spend a weekend blazing through the next book on your reading list. (I did this last one this past weekend. It was glorious!) Find whatever creative ways you can to make certain that reading is a habit rather than a luxury.
Stretch yourself to read outside your comfort zone. Read authors whose names are well known, and those you’ve never heard of. Read old books and new books. Read books in your favorite genre, and books in genres you’ve skipped before now. If you write novels, read poetry. If you write poetry, read essays. And vise versa.
Revisit old favorites. Read books for children and books for grown-ups. Read books about times and places and people that interest you. Read books about times and places and people you know nothing about.
You get the idea.
Reading widely will help you become a more versatile writer. You’ll learn techniques you may not have encountered before. You’ll be exposed to ideas that will inform your writing as well as your life. You’ll have the chance to respond to what you read in your own words. You may even discover a new favorite.
Choose wisely when selecting what books to read and when. Be picky.
This next bit of advice may sound like I’m contradicting what I’ve just written above. Well, never fear. It doesn’t. The two really can go hand-in-hand.
I’m talking about being smart with your book choices. Not all books are equally suited to helping us along our writing journeys. Not all authors connect with all readers.
Ask yourself, does this book lead me into my own work or does it take me away from it?
Sometimes you’ll make this decision based on subject matter. Other times it will be based on the author’s style or tone. The reality is that some books will inspire us to keep writing, while others won’t. Some books will get us excited about returning to work on our own projects, others will distract us. You may be surprised which books do and which books don’t.
If you feel like a particular story is hindering your work, seriously consider putting it down for awhile. Along with that, it’s always better to nourish yourself with good writing. If you’re beginning to notice signs of poor or sloppy writing, take a step back and consider whether the work is the best thing for you to be reading at the moment.
Don’t be afraid to set a book aside without finishing it. You have permission to let it go if it’s not the right one for you.
To paraphrase the words of a beloved and well-read college professor: If you don’t like it, don’t finish it. Life is too short to read books you don’t like. But don’t become prejudiced about a book. Set it aside, but it may be just the book you need at a different part of your life (alongside a different project).
I’ll only touch on this topic briefly as it introduces what could (and should) become an entire series of posts, but I do think it worth mentioning right away.
Remember to pay attention as you’re reading. As you experience the story or essay or poem, observe how the author accomplishes what he or she has set out to do. What works? What doesn’t work? If you notice some element that is similar to your own work, take mental notes of how the author makes it happen.
Reading well is an invaluable opportunity to learn from the writers who have gone before you as well as your peers. Many a time have I stumbled upon the technical solution for a trouble spot in my work-in-progress through the pages of someone else’s story.
Most importantly, remember to enjoy your reading time. This will provide you with the energy you need to keep writing.
Relish well-crafted sentences. Connect with complex characters. Gasp or laugh or cry as the plot takes you to places you didn’t expect. Delight in words. Get swept away into new settings, experiences, and emotions.
I find that as we enjoy reading, we may just find our writing that much more enjoyable too.
Keep reading, my friends!