Read, Read, and Read Some More
by Saeida Rouass
If you are an aspiring writer, one of the first pieces of advice you will hear from other writers and industry folk is read, read, and read some more. It has become a bit of a cliché--something you are told over and over again. It comes to the top of any Internet search on ‘how to write,’ and creative writing courses are built on the principle of reading as a basis for becoming a writer. The advice makes sense. Of course, if you want to write you have to read. Only an idiot would argue the opposite. But, for me, the wisdom behind it remained a mystery for a long time.
I have always been an obsessive reader. My mother likes to tell her friends that, when I was a child, she was sure to find me in a corner of a room reading. No one has ever had to explain the benefits of reading to me. It has provided me escape and solace in dark times, widened my understanding of the world, enriched my life, and expanded my capacity for empathy.
I have also always known I want to be a writer. At twelve years old, I announced to my mother that I was going to be a novelist. She bought me an electric typewriter for my thirteenth birthday, and I set about on my first attempt to become a writer. Three hours later, I failed miserably and gave up for the next twenty-five years or so.
During that time, I signed up and dropped out of creative writing courses, bought books on how to write fiction, upgraded to a laptop, and continued to read like a maniac. And yet, reading never quite unlocked my writing. It just made me more in awe of the craft and crippled my ability to see myself in that role.
Loneliness and depression are dark places, but they can also be a liberating experience. It was after a yearlong depression and acute loneliness that finally got me writing. I had nothing left to lose; the fear of failure became meaningless because I already felt like a failure, and so I sat down and wrote a story. Once I got to the end of the story, I realized that reading had primed me for writing in a way that no creative writing course or golden piece of advice could have.
Reading has helped my writing in specific ways:
Rewiring the brain
Storytelling is a process. It’s not about describing an event or situation; it is about taking your reader or listener on a journey. As the storyteller, you invoke a world, a range of emotions, and thoughts in a particular order so the journey culminates in a full experience. I believe that as a writer, your first reader is yourself. You have to tell yourself that story in your first draft. Yes, some people are ‘natural storytellers,’ but I would bet my publishing contract they acquired that ability through reading or having stories told to them as a child. Reading has rewired my brain to see the story in everything. Isolated incidents become part of a bigger narrative. I can’t listen to a description of an event without searching for the why, how, who, when, and where that gives it meaning. This has allowed me to see the world through stories so that I can write them too.
Realizing what I like
Writing has also changed the way I read. I read for pleasure, but at some level I am also identifying what I like about the storytelling. I find myself registering what another writer has done with a piece of dialogue, prose, vocabulary, and tempo, and that helps me identify what kind of writing I want to do and the reading experience I want to create. Locating what I like as a reader has helped me experiment as a writer.
Realizing what I don’t like
I have a long-standing compulsion to finish books I don’t like. When I begin a book and quickly realized that the reading of it will be difficult, rather than throw it at the wall, I challenge my capacity. So, I have to finish it. Though the experience is usually painful, finishing books I don’t like has helped me immensely as a writer. It has helped me identify what doesn’t feel right, what bad dialogue sounds like, what isn’t working, and how and where the telling of a story can go wrong. Negative reading experiences help me locate traps we all fall into as writers when we are lost in our own heads, and increases my ability to avoid them in my own writing.
When all is said and done, reading will always feel productive and beneficial. Of course, reading can be used as a way to avoid actual writing, but with a bit of self-awareness reading feels like it is enriching my writing through some kind of osmosis or magic. Feeling like I am doing something productive maintains my writing stamina. It helps keep writing present in my life because reading forces my mind back to my own writing.
So yes, read, read, and read some more is clichéd advice. It feels obvious and redundant, but locating what reading has done for me as a writer and reading with that in mind has been immensely valuable. I would not be writing if it weren’t for that tired and overused piece of advice.