See Like Your Heroes

“You don’t want to look like your heroes – you want to see like your heroes.” –Austin Kleon

Read. Extensively. Broadly. Deeply.

That’s the first piece of advice given to writers. It’s tied with that other great piece of writing advice: write.

But why do writers need to read?

Usually this advice is dispensed in the context of developing technique and honing craft. After all, if you want to master the English language, you study the masters, even if your style deviates drastically from those who have gone before. If you want to learn how to build a convincing world, Harry Potter is a fantastic guide, even if you’re not writing fantasy.

But this tried-and-true piece of writing wisdom is much more than a tool to improve the nuts and bolts of the writer’s craft.

We read to find mentors.

Mentors – those people who have more experience than we do and walk alongside us as we figure out this thing called life. What those people do is shape how we see. They don’t give us new information as much as they help us reframe our perception of our lives in a way that’s productive. They teach us how to see – what details to pay attention to and what sweeping trends to keep track of. The people who shape how we see have a crucial impact on how we live our lives.

I assume that most of us have in-person mentors when it comes to life in general. But writing mentors? Those are harder to find, even in the days of the internet.

So we read.

And as we read, we find mentors – those books and authors that we repeatedly turn to because they shape how we see the world. After all, the first step in writing is seeing.

Who are your mentors? How are they teaching you to see?

If you don’t know, then ask yourself, “Who do I want to see like?” Explore a little. Read around. Take mental (or actual) notes. It’s worth noting that sometimes your technique mentors are not going to be the same as your vision mentors.

For example, I’m thinking about adding John Steinbeck to my list of vision mentors. I love the way he sees the world – giving due importance to the individual within the context of the sweeping, mythic scale of East of Eden. Am I capable of being a novelist like Steinbeck? Heck, no. I don’t even want to be. (Fiction writing scares me silly. I can’t write a short story, much less a novel. Much less a Great American Novel.) But I can learn a lot from Steinbeck about how a good writer notices human interactions and captures them on paper.

My other mentors include

  • blogger Emily P. Freeman. I love her vision to “create space for your soul to breathe” in everything she creates.
  • Pulitzer-Prize winner Marilynne Robinson. Her intelligence is formidable, she is unapologetic about her faith, and yet she writes in a way that is winsome even to those who don’t share her beliefs.
  • poet and essayist Kathleen Norris. She thinks deeply and recognizes that some of the most important moments of life are the ordinary ones – doing laundry, going on walks, baking bread.
  • Harper Lee. I love her sense of place and her ability to step inside someone else’s shoes and walk around in them for a little while.

It’s not that I want to sound or even think just like these authors. I don’t. I want to sound and think like myself. But I do want to see the world the way they see it – full of value and mystery and wonder in the midst of all the questions and suffering and pain. And so I read them and reread them so that I catch some of their vision.

I recently heard someone observe that “originality doesn’t happen in a vacuum.” Don’t put the pressure on yourself to be original in a vacuum. You won’t be doing yourself or your writing any favors if you do. There is no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants. And it’s worth thinking carefully about whose shoulders you’re standing on. Because when you climb up on their shoulders, the view from the top is going to depend on where they chose to stand.

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IMG_4401Kate has always thought of herself as more of a reader than a writer, but she’s slowly learning to step into her long-standing bent toward writing. (The first Write 100 Challenge was a great kick in the pants.) A 2017 graduate of Wheaton College, she currently lives in Munich, where she teaches English to rambunctious German teenagers. In her spare time she reads, explores Europe, and blogs at The Wilds of Wonder.

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