An anecdote, if you will.
In my late teens, I attended my first writing class. We were an eclectic group. Fiction writers. Poets. Even a few journalism enthusiasts. As an ice breaker, the teacher asked us to speak about our favourite books. I groaned. I always hated this question. I never knew how to answer. Could I rank a Hemingway above a Wilde? A Chekov above a Poe? How could I possibly decide?
The class went around, dropping names. All the big shots emerged. Shakespeare. Tolkien. King. Plath. This went on until we landed on a poet, a lanky boy in black who declared, “I don’t have a favourite book. I don’t read. I don’t want anything influencing my style.”
My first reaction was to stare. My second was to cry blasphemy. A writer who does not read? The idea was as foreign to me as a pianist who does not listen to music. I might have recoiled. I might have made a face. His answer lit a fire in me. When it was my turn to speak, I stood and said, with equal vehemence, “I don’t have a favourite book either, because I read everything.” I said this as though I had something to prove.
But why did I have such a reaction? Why did I feel such a drawing desire to rebut? In that moment, I believed, with every ounce of my being, that my answer was more correct than his. That a writer should always read, and not just read, but read widely.
The Well of Knowledge
One might claim that a writer does not need to read to write. This is true. Writing, after all, is merely a form of communication, and everyone knows, to some degree, how to communicate. My poet classmate, who did not read, still knew how to write. He understood sentences, and structure, and had creative ideas.
Yet writing does not happen in isolation. Not entirely, anyway.
Every piece of contemporary writing is a result of thousands of years of literary history—traditions that have percolated into our collective consciousness over time. Every genre is a plethora of established archetypes, patterns, and expectations. Writing itself is a transformative craft, constantly evolving, built on top of and alongside the ideas, styles, techniques, and successes of our writing peers and predecessors.
And herein lies my answer:
I read widely because I want to be influenced. Yes, I can write without reading, but to do so is to refuse the deep wells of knowledge sitting in my very backyard.
Learning from the Field
For writers, reading is akin to gaining field experience. The wider you read, the broader your horizons, and the better you understand your craft. Reading allows us to learn what has been done, what has worked, and, just as importantly, what has not worked. Better yet, it allows us to witness tools, techniques, and methods in action.
See, every literary genre has areas in which they excel. Prose does not read like a play does not read like poetry. Prose might prioritize narrative arc over imagery, whereas poetry might do the opposite. I am predominately a science-fiction fantasy novel writer. Yet every time I venture into genres outside my own, I find a wealth of transferable skills to add to my writing arsenal.
Graphic novels, for example, taught me how to better show. Subtle changes in lighting, angle, and colour can flavour a scene. A smile in sunshine feels different than a smile in the rain. I do not have pictures in my novels, but I have description, and that is a close enough approximation.
Poetry, on the other hand, made me more aware of connotations. An eternity of symbolism and cultural significance stands behind the word “rose.” This has made me more careful of my word choices in general.
And so on and so forth.
Let’s go back to that classroom.
It was not as though I did not understand my poetic classmate’s concerns. Originality is highly emphasized in all creative fields.
But what is originality anyway?
I would argue that originality is not so much invention than transformation. It does not spring from nothing. Rather, originality happens in reaction to pre-established norms. Fresh genres don’t pop out of nowhere. They are derived from existing ones. New voices don’t arise from the void. They counter traditional ones. To be original, you must first learn what is not original, per se.
Once you know of what is out there, you can change it. You can play, experiment, chop things up and put it back together in fascinating ways. Genre fusion, mixing and matching, purposeful deviations in structure and narrative—these are but a few examples of what you can try. See that familiar cliché? Invert it. That well-crafted sentence? Break it up. That hero’s journey? Apply it to contemporary romance instead.
To quote Dr. Seuss, “The more you know, the more places you’ll go.” If you’re worried about originality, don’t be. Reading widely can inspire originality rather than detracts from it.
Reading to Write
So, how does one begin to read widely? And how does one reap its benefits without writing hundred-page dissertations on craft? There is a lot out there, and our time is finite. No one wants to sift through every book in history on the off chance of finding a cool turn of phrase.
One of the safest ways to branch out is to mix the familiar with the unfamiliar. Take a trope, setting, or archetype you enjoy and seek it elsewhere. Enjoy romance novels? Try romance poetry. Enjoy strong voices in fiction? Seek strong voices in memoir. See how they differ. See how they are familiar. See where they pull, where they push, and how.
Great. Now, get active. Ask questions. When we read as a writers, we are not simply consuming a product, but actively considering its creation. Look for those “aha” moments where your brain snags, where you find yourself reading the same passage over and over again. These are moments where something resonated. Then, consider: Why did I react the way I did? How did the writing evoke such a reaction? Do I want that for my own writing? How can I work that into my own writing?
And when you have those “oh no” moments (which you certainly will), ask yourself similar questions: Why didn’t I like this? What happened? How can I avoid making the same mistakes? A negative experience, after all, is just as important as a positive one when it comes to learning.
An analogy, if you will.
You are in a workshop. Here is your project. Here are your tools. You chip away at your project using your tools. You become excellent at it. Then, one day, a new wing springs forth with new projects and new tools. You stare at these projects. They are different than your own. You stare at these tools. They are new to you. Maybe you love this new wing! You find its projects fascinating! You’re excited about having new tools! Great! Or, maybe, you hate everything about it. You cover it up and refuse to set foot inside. This is fine too.
Because love or hate, you have a new wing at your disposal, to visit or ignore at will.
Reading widely adds more wings.
It never hurts to have more wings.
Let me finish by stressing this: You can be a good writer without reading widely. Reading widely is by no means a prerequisite for writing. If anything, it’s icing on top. It’s the optional reading you get at the end of each class for enrichment’s sake. This is simply to encourage you to explore. To give it a try, whatever it may be. To test new waters, and seek new tools. To try novel things. To stretch and bend and break some boundaries. To have some fun.
So read widely, write without fear.
You never know what you will find.
Like more authors, Jennifer Chen is a humanoid organism. She is usually found in front of an unfinished Word document, ingesting caffeinated drinks, and daydreaming. She enjoys writing so much she went ahead and got herself an MFA in creative writing from University of British Columbia for it.
Jennifer will read anything at least once, and then talk about it over the course of several social dinners. Of all the genres available, she most enjoys speculative fiction and magic realism.
Word Crafting is a blog to help writers strive for excellence. If you would like to be a guest blogger, pitch me an idea.