Reading came first. It always does.
Reading is the inhale, writing is the exhale.
I once read somewhere that kids who like to read fall into two groups. The first naturally picks up reading from their environment: they see their parents reading, they find books in the house, they go to libraries and bookstores and learn young and easily the books that they enjoy. These kinds of readers are bright, well-rounded kids. They are socially adept. They have lots of friends.
The second kind of reader is a different creature – and a member of a much smaller group. The environment doesn’t seem to make a difference: this kid seems wired to read, and sooner or later she will find her way to books, even if she has to crawl through green slime to do it. These kids read obsessively. They are maybe not so well-rounded, their social skills maybe not so finely honed. They have a strong solitary streak.
I grew up around books. Both my parents read. My mother was constantly bringing home books from the library. My father was an elementary school principal and he would present me with paperbacks asking me to “test them out” before giving them over to his school library.
But I am not a well-rounded type. Not then, not now. I am ‘spiky’. I learned to read when I was 5 – I know this because I found mid-year kindergarten report cards that proclaimed Justine is reading! – and bought my first book for two dollars at the local Coles bookstore. It was Blubber, by Judy Blume, and one of the ‘big kids’ had written a book report in the school newsletter about it. I was with a childhood friend named Andrea who also bought a copy of Blubber, and two days later I went to her house and asked her if she’d finished it yet. I was surprised when she said no. This would have been my first inkling – if I’d been old and mature enough to have such things as inklings – that I was not your typical reader. In grade one I would sit in reading group, bored out of my little-girl skull, while other kids sounded out Dick and Jane. I flipped through the book to the ‘teacher’s instructions’ at the end and read those in a desperate attempt to amuse myself. Then we’d go back to our desks and I’d pull out my copy of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. Although I didn’t know this at the time – and wouldn’t until I ran into my first-grade teacher over a decade later – the teacher never believed that I was truly reading Christie. She thought I was staring at the pages for show. Just another intellectually pretentious little first-grader.
Reading was my first and earliest drug. I didn’t want to go out on the playground during recess and lunch hour. I would hide somewhere in the school building and read. In junior high I found excellent nesting places among the stacks in the library, at least until my teacher realized where I was (and wasn’t). He would pound angrily on the windows to flush me out. The grown-ups in my life seemed determined that I learn how to socialize like a normal kid, which I was beginning to realize I wasn’t, not quite. I was lonely and craved popularity but could only be with other kids for a certain amount of time. I got bored. I wanted to get back to my book.
Fiction raised me. Although I remember getting the birds-and-the-bees conversation from my parents in a way that didn’t make a whole lot of sense at the time – something about a seed getting planted in the woman’s vagina, how gross, and what did gardening have to do with human babies? – my sexual education came to me, thoroughly and in-depth, from books. I read Judy Blume and learned about menstruation, wet dreams, and erections; I read Richard Peck’s Are You In The House Alone and learned about date rape; I read my way through VC Andrews and learned about forbidden desire. I read so much about HIV – I came of age during the AIDS crisis – that I could lecture adults about how it was and was not transmitted. I knew about the different kinds of birth control years before I had any use for them. I knew that sex seemed simple enough but could get really complicated really quickly and made you emotionally vulnerable and had a seedy underside and a dark side and could ruin your life if you got pregnant, as several girls in my high school proceeded to do. None of the adults in my life taught me this, at least not in a way that made any real impression. Fiction did. Fiction delivered not just a ‘message’ but rich emotional context and power that sent that message resonating through gut, heart and soul. Fiction was like stepping into a whole other life – a succession of lives – and the knowledge I gathered there I could bring back into my so-called real one. It was a strange kind of knowledge, it was the knowledge of life gleaned from books, of hard-won experience when I was an innocent, but it was knowledge nonetheless, and it fueled my hunger for more, more, more. I wanted the world. And no one, absolutely no one, could talk me out of it.
When someone tells me they want to write, I always like to ask them what they read. It’s not just out of curiosity – although I am always curious about what people are reading, always one to sneak a glance at the title of the hardcover novel my neighbor on the plane is reading, always one to wander over to the bookshelves in any strange room I happen to find myself in – but a little test of sorts. Maybe it’s fair, maybe it’s unfair, but the plain fact is that most people flunk it.
The test is this: Do you read obsessively?
Most people kind of stutter around a bit and look at me blankly. They might name a few bestselling writers, or things that everybody read in high school – Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Kurt Vonnegut – but more than the actual answer it’s the way they answer, the pauses and squirming discomfort, the sense that I’ve put them on the spot.
People who read a lot can rattle off titles, authors, different genres; it can be highbrow or lowbrow, doesn’t matter: they are fluent in the language of Book. When someone gives me an answer like that, I can feel my writer’s ears perking up, like a dog suddenly hopeful for a treat. Someone could tell me they wrote a novel last week, and as far as I’m concerned that doesn’t prove anything except an impressive ability to face the blank computer screen time after time after time– which is no small thing, but, sadly, not nearly enough on its own.
But tell me you read two or three books last week, and the week before that, and the week before that going all the way back to your teen years or childhood or whatever, and that’s when I think, Ah! You might be the real deal.
Reading obsessively isn’t nearly enough on its own, either. You still need to accumulate all the tools a fiction writer needs in his or her personal kit – plot, theme, character, place, incisive use of detail, evocation of the different senses, etcetera etcetera – and you still need to practice and persevere until you learn to write a novel that, as one writing instructor put it, “hinges together”. And then you need to learn about query letters and how to get an agent and suffer the agonizing near-misses of almost-publication and endure the endless endless waiting and so on. But reading obsessively is, to me, a sign, like a big red X stamped on your forehead that signals you’re one of the tribe. And as a member of that farflung, scattered tribe, I’m excited to find one of my kind.
Because the truth of it is, there aren’t a whole lot of obsessive readers in the world.
Just like there aren’t a whole lot of people who sell their works of fiction (or nonfiction), who are paid to be published, who can walk into a Borders or Barnes & Noble and find their books on the shelves (at least for a brief period of time).
Seems to me these two things are connected.
I like books.
This is the part where somebody always tells me just how wrong I am, how full of bullshit, there are no rules when it comes to art, including John D MacDonald’s maxim: If you don’t read three books a week, you don’t have a chance. This is the part where somebody, inevitably a wannabe writer who doesn’t read much, trots out the anecdote of someone they know who doesn’t read much either – after all, who has the time? – and wrote a novel and it became a huge bestseller and won a Pulitzer. Or something to that effect.
To which I say calmly, And so that’s the exception that proves the rule. While inwardly thinking, Show me a successful writer who doesn’t read much and I’ll show you a dog that can foxtrot. Sure, such writers (and dogs) might exist here and there – the whole thing about get enough monkeys together and put them on typewriters and at some point they’ll produce the Bible -- and I’m writing way too many animals into this paragraph -- but they’re so rare you can bill them as a circus act.
It just doesn’t work that way.
That you need to read a lot in order to be a better writer isn’t a ‘rule’ but a reflection of an underlying principle about the creative life in general. For me, Eric Maisel puts it best in his book Creativity For Life:
‘…the most useful definition of creativity is the following: people are artistically creative when they love what they are doing, know what they are doing, and actively engage in art-making. The three elements of creativity are thus loving, knowing and doing; or heart, mind and hands; or, as Zen Buddhist teaching has it, great faith, great question, and great courage.’
Loving, knowing, doing. The secret behind becoming excellent at anything is loving one thing deep and hard enough to do it for a very long time. To continue to learn and know it.
There are two kinds of knowing: the things that we can consciously articulate and the different, deeper kind that we can’t really explain or, sometimes, are even aware we possess, but guides us anyway – if we are willing to let it.
We call it our inner voice, our intuition.
My best writing comes from what I guess you could call my writer’s intuition – or, as I like to call it, my undermind. The undermind is a mysterious place and I don’t claim to understand how it works, only that I must feed it and keep it healthy and give it enough space and time so that it can work. When I come to the laptop and return to a scene that’s been troubling me and suddenly realize that I don’t even need it, that in fact the book works better if I cut it out entirely…When I express some kind of insight I didn’t even know I had, either through prose or a character’s dialogue…When I go off on what seems a tangent from the main storyline and yet realize that it makes the book richer, deeper to veer in this direction for a bit…Whenever I have the sense that I don’t really know where the writing is coming from, I know that I’m giving my writer’s intuition full force, that I am letting it speak through me. This is also when I know that I’m at – or at least near – the top of my game.
I had my most striking lesson about the undermind when I was writing LORD OF BONES, which became my third published novel (and sequel to my first). I had the entire book mapped out, both in my head and again on paper: I had outlined and revised the outline and revised the outline yet again, believing that the actual writing of the book can affect the outline just as much as the outline affects the book. Both outline and novel-in-progress are, in my mind, living documents: they shift and change, they evolve. No matter how thoroughly you map out a scene beforehand, there’s a kind of magic in the act of actually writing it that never happens in the outline, so that you end up with something different than what you’d intended. The difference might be great, or small and subtle, but it needs to be acknowledged, and looped back into the outline of the novel, which must alter enough to incorporate it…So if the outline dictates the course of the novel, the novel keeps altering the outline.
When I was writing my dark urban fantasy LORD OF BONES I came to a scene where my character Kai Youngblood, a seven-hundred-year-old Summoner (a descendent of angels who can use magic), has a conversation with a demon named Del who has information about the novel’s Big Bad – the Lord of Bones himself – that Kai desperately wants.
And then Del said something that surprised me. He suggested that the Lord of Bones was looking for a new pupil, now that Asha, the villain of my first novel BLOODANGEL, had been eliminated.
A thought flashed through me: what if Jess, my novel’s protagonist (and Kai’s love interest) was that new pupil? What if Bones was seeking her out for that reason?
From the way the idea came out of nowhere and resonated through me, I knew it was my undermind at work. And so I did this:
I ignored it.
I ignored it because in order to accommodate it I wouldn’t have to tweak or alter the outline, but throw out the whole thing and start from scratch. The thought of all that extra work made me groan. Besides, it was a half-second flash. It was a door swinging open just enough to let in some outside air, give a glimpse of a different road. Easy enough to kick that door shut.
Flash forward maybe two hundred pages and many months later. I lost my original editor, who jumped publishing houses, and as we waited to see who would replace her my agent contacted me about the manuscript. She said, nicely and gently, that since the publication date was coming up fast (it was about a year away) we should probably get to work on revising the manuscript – that is, if I was willing to consider her suggestions. Since my agent has proven repeatedly her excellent editorial eye, I said sure. Also, I knew deep in my gut that the book….didn’t work.
My agent confirmed this. She didn’t exactly say “it sucks”, but presented a convincing and thorough argument about why the first sixty pages were good and the rest of the book was not. She said, We should throw out everything after the first sixty pages. She said, There’s a conversation that Kai has with Del where it’s suggested that the Lord of Bones might want to ‘mentor’ Jess, and I think that’s a great idea, and the direction the book should go in…
And of course I knew she was right. The decision I made in order to avoid a painful truth (the book wasn’t working) as well as the extra time and work involved in starting over, ended up costing me….a new, much more painful truth (the completed book was a hideous, horrible failure that should never see the light of day) and considerably more time than if I’d been smart enough to go with my intuition in the first place.
The creative process has always been regarded as mysterious to the point of being otherworldly – the ancient Greeks believed that when you were ‘in the zone’ some literal higher power was working through you. I don’t believe in those kinds of muses – or rather, I believe in what Steven Pressfield in his excellent book The War of Art describes as a ‘workaday muse’. Basically: inspiration strikes only those who prepare for it, and the way you prepare for it is to show up at the work everyday, to overcome all the insidious, brutal forces that keep us procrastinating and rationalizing away that procrastination, to keep slugging through the work until mental skies open and the nubile goddess of Inspiration sweeps down and streaks us away in her white-hot chariot.
My take is that the ‘higher power’ is the deeper, darker power of the undermind, of writer’s intuition. You can’t control it. It will not come when called. It will not be your dog. But you can feed and nourish it and do your best to train it, so that when it does show up it sings out with the full gifted vocal range of a Christina Aguilera, instead of one of those deluded folks trying out for American Idol.
And the way you train it is through reading.
Reading reading reading.
You can take classes and workshops. You can (and probably should) seek out writing mentors who will help you learn the craft of fiction writing and, if you’re very lucky, the kind of mindset necessary to be a professional (ie: someone who loves writing enough to commit to it as something other than “just a hobby”). You can read your way through an ocean of books about how to build plots and create characters.
I’ve done all these things and found them helpful. But this is what I noticed early on, when I was still in my late teens: these books and Writer’s Digest articles that explored the techniques of fiction writing were only putting face and form to things I already ‘knew’. I just knew them on that deeper level of things that are sensed and felt; I already did many of them, knowing that they worked and were somehow ‘right’ but without knowing why or even what, exactly, I was doing. I didn’t need to learn about point of view, for example, from a workshop or an article; I had already absorbed that knowledge through years and years of reading fiction. What I did need was a better sense of how I could improve, and this is where that conscious, deconstructed kind of writer’s knowledge – that upfront face knowledge as opposed to the vague shadowy knowledge of the undermind – came in helpful.
Let me put it this way: I learned to write fiction (to the extent that I know how to do it) through reading fiction. Reading fiction gave me a rough draft of knowledge; novel-writing workshops and all those how-to magazines and books, what I sometimes affectionately refer to as Writer’s Porn, helped me revise all that knowledge to make it sharper, stronger, much more focused.
Reading is the ‘learning’. You can never learn enough. The more I read, the more experienced I become in just what other writers do to achieve a powerful level of storytelling. As a reader, I enjoy myself, and as a writer, I file those examples away deep in my undermind where they join up with other examples and play around and cross-fertilize and wait for the moment when they’re needed. They become the river of knowledge, influence and inspiration that I can draw from and the more I read, the deeper and wider that river gets.
A well-known agent in San Francisco once advised a room filled with eager hopefuls to take their time allotted to writing, slice it in half, and dedicate one half to reading. Reading can never replace the actual ‘doing’ of writing: you still need to put in all that time at the blank page, you still need to get those practice novels under your belt and in that mythical Trunk that every writer seems to possess in some form. But learning and doing are flip sides of the same coin; one doesn’t fully exist without the other.
Reading is the inhale, writing is the exhale.
Aspiring writers will tell me, But I don’t have time to read! I never understood the logic behind this. Whether or not you like it, whether or not you have ‘time’ for it: that doesn’t change the cold objective fact that, if you want to arrive at a certain level of craft, it has to be done.
Which brings us to love.
Loving, learning, doing: if you love fiction enough, you find the time. You give up other things instead. You read around the edges of your life – standing in line, waiting in the doctor’s office, on the train or the bus or the plane. You read during lunch hour. You read instead of doing the dishes or watching TV or shopping for stuff you probably don’t need anyway.
The art of any art is the art of obsession. This is not something that people in general tend to understand. They encourage you to be well-rounded, which bemuses me in a society that tends to reward the specialists – the obsessives – those who decided to excel at one thing instead of becoming good at a hundred or competent at a thousand.
There were people in my life who told me I read too much. One afternoon during the year I was an exchange student in Australia, my host father took me aside and we went for a walk. He told me to make sure I always put away any food I took out of the fridge or cupboard, because in the hot Australian climate crumbs attracted bugs. Lots of bugs. He also told me that maybe I should read a little less. Or maybe a lot less. He believed what a lot of people believe: that reading was a poor substitute for actually living, as if one could only be done in exclusion of the other; and that reading fiction was, by and large, a form of escape and an unproductive use of time. If you’re going to read, at least read non-fiction, because that way you learn something.
It wouldn’t be the last time I encountered this attitude. My ex-husband used to ask me, whenever he saw me reading, “Don’t you think you’ve read enough books?” He was joking without really joking; he thought my time was better spent elsewhere, preferably on the house. To suggest that this was one of the reasons we eventually divorced would not be too far from the truth.
So I would say this:
Reading is living. It is a way of touching minds with some of the most remarkable minds that exist or ever did exist. Reading takes you deeper into the nature of reality, helps you penetrate the human condition itself. It enlarges your consciousness. It provides you with experiences you never could have had in any other way (or just haven’t had yet). And when you put the book down, everything you take away from it helps you live your life with added depth and richness. Fiction may not provide you with the same kind of information as non-fiction, but information is not always knowledge, and knowledge is not always wisdom. Fiction – the best fiction – is wise, and makes you just a little bit wiser, and you can take that wisdom and apply it across all the different parts of your life.
I am, as of this writing, 37 years old. I am an obsessive reader. I’ve also managed to travel the world, get educated, work various jobs (being crappy at many of them and good at a few), develop friendships, have a tumultuous love life, participate in a scandal or two (not telling), have twins, have triplets, sell three novels, see a ton of movies, write a blog, get married, get divorced, etcetera etcetera. Not necessarily in that order. I started out in Peterborough, Canada and ended up south of the border and on the other side of the continent in Los Angeles, California. I don’t say this to brag about my time management skills – which tend to be questionable in any case – but only to underscore the point that, in the most basic and literal sense of the term, I have still managed to have a life.
If I could go back in time and meet up with my younger self, I wouldn’t tell her to read less.
I would tell her to read more.
If you want to be a writer, read.
Read like a maniac.
Give yourself permission to read like a maniac.
Don’t just read because it will make you a better writer – although it will. Read because you love to read, you love stories of all shapes and sizes, you love the flow and rhythms and innovations of language, you love to learn stuff about people, you love to learn stuff about the world, you love to form relationships with individuals who don’t exist. Read because you love to write. Read because you love fiction and nonfiction and their pirate chests of treasures.
Read for love.
Because if you don’t have love, then what do you have?
And why are you reading this in the first place?