Reading is to writing like water is to a fish. A couple years ago I realized that, somewhere around my middle thirties, all my reading had metamorphosed from fiction and poetry to research and essays. I was reading thick tomes on Ancient Egypt and the Wild West with a collector’s avidity and little focus on the writing. The irony is that my abandonment of reading fiction coincided with my eager beavering at writing fiction. I was reading to learn about the places and periods that inspired me to write.
It took me a while to realize that I was no longer in touch with the storytellers that had created a love of literature in me in the first place. A couple years back I pledged to make the time to read novels and short stories again. I decided that as a writer I need to breathe in and absorb the work of other artists; not to mimic them but to learn from and be inspired by them.
As a kid I totally absorbed the classics and many of the great writers of the last couple of centuries from Dostoevsky, to Dickens, to Hardy. I read Lord of the Rings about ten times (yes I was that geeky child) before the age of sixteen. As an adult I have had far more difficulty getting into novels. I’m still looking for good writing but I also need good stories and a lot of modern novelists of the literary variety leave me cold – yes, I’m that kind of luddite. I still believe in story and plot. It’s all style and in the head when I want something to actually happen. So from the classics of my youth I have been reading more along the lines of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard.
Much as I admire King’s storytelling ability and craftsmanship (and have tried to absorb the lessons in writing that he can deftly apply) he can be lacking in the sheer beauty of words. Elmore Leonard is the king of ‘spare’ dry bones fiction and I’m finding that isn’t what I want either. It’s highly praised by editors and other writers at this moment in time, but I consider it just one style and just one possibility and not necessarily the pinnacle of literary mastery. I recently read No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and it was excellent – the writing both hard edged and lyrical at the same time. McCarthy is an author that inspires me to be a better writer, and to pick up more of his books.
The key to reading fiction in order to learn to write better yourself is to read more thoughtfully. It doesn’t mean you have to lose the rhythm of the story. It’s more akin to enjoying fine wine. You just don’t pour it into a jelly jar and gulp it down; you breathe in the aroma, sifting through the myriad scents, sip, roll it over your tongue, and then drink that baby all up. Feel free to mark passages that strike you. Query word choices that pull you up short and take you out of the story. Go back and read excellent bits again.
You should even feel free to mimic as a writing exercise, just remembering that all this reading and even mimicry is just a passage to finding your own style and rhythm.
So which writers inspire you? I would love to hear back from you all – so that I can find other gems and continue on my literary journey of discovery.