Like all writers I love to read. Long before I ever picked up a pen to spill my own words upon the virgin page, I devoured the words of others. Beginning with Enid Blyton mysteries and the adventures of Biggles, I rapidly progressed to the classics, reading Jane Eyre when I was a mere nine years old.
I remember the day well. I was bored, and my mother handed me a copy of this great classic in an attempt to find me something to do. That was it. I was smitten. In love with the greatest love story ever told! Jane Eyrewill forever hold a very special place on my book shelf and in my heart.
Of course Charlotte Bronte’s words did a whole lot more than entertain a bored child for a few summer weeks. She altered my relationship to the written word. She showed me what was possible when words were manipulated, formed and re-formed in the hands of a master. It was a short step to writing down my own words.
This love affair between reading and writing, initiated by Jane Eyre, continues to this day. Not only that, but there is a direct relationship between the quality of my output, and the amount of time I give over to input in the form of reading the words of others.
So what does this mean? The lesson is simple – if I want to have any chance of writing well, I must make time to read. It is vital for my writing that I keep reading. Only by reading – slowly, deliberately, and with deep attention, can I ever hope to learn how to appreciate the raw material upon which all literature is based, words.
First I learned to read. Then I learned to write. That symbiotic relationship between reading and writing remains. You can’t have one without the other.
According to Bonnie Goldberg in her book Beyond the Words,
“Reading is crucial writer’s fuel…..Reading nourishes your writing because it exercises your imagination and receptivity, fills your psyche with rhythms and patterns of language different from your own, and takes you out of your daily life and routine perspectives”
Reading is part of the process, an essential and non-negotiable element along the continuum of word play and exploration.
One specific exercise Bonnie Goldberg suggests is to deliberately decide what kind of reading you are going to do. At the moment I am engaged in a minute and careful reading of Juliet Greenwood’s evocative novel Eden’s Garden. I am reading this book as part of my self-paced and designed ‘workshop’ on how to write a romantic novel. As I read each chapter, I do so twice – once for the story, the atmosphere, the joy of reading, and again for a close analysis of the structure, examining plot, characterization, setting and dialogue.
Yes it takes longer to read this way. But the benefits of reading like a writer outweigh the delayed gratification of discovering what happens next. If anything it adds to the pleasure. After all, why rush to the climax when half the fun is getting there?
In another approach to reading, Francine Prose in her bestselling book, Reading Like a Writer writes about the effect beloved authors have had upon her writing. She had her own personal
“ pantheon made up of…writers; P.L Travers, Astrid Lindgren, E. Nesbit, the idols of my childhood. Theirs was the approval I longed for, the company I longed to join as they floated above me….Over the intervening years, the membership of my literary pantheon has changed. But I have never lost the idea of Tolstoy or George Eliot nodding or frowning over my work, turning thumbs up or down.
I have heard other writers talk about the sensation of writing for an audience made up partly of the dead…..
So who are the writers with whom we might want to have this out-of-time communion? The Brontes, Dickens, Turgenev, Wolff – the list is long enough to support a lifetime of solid reading.”
Do you feed your writing Muse by making the time to read?
Which authors comprise your personal pantheon of writers?