“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Stephen King’s writing advice goes straight to the point: Writers should read more. It’s advice you see repeated everywhere, in almost every workshop and author interview. But what are those tools exactly? What is it that reading teaches you that you can’t learn just from classes, or from your own writing?
Reading teaches you what good language sounds like
Annie Dillard has a wonderful anecdote about a great painter she once met: “I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I liked the smell of the paint.‘”
As a writer, words are your paint. Boiled down to its simplest form, writing is the act of moving words around on paper until you like the way they sound, and if you don’t love the visceral experience of working with words, you have no business being a writer.
Just as the musician trains her ear by listening to music, the writer trains her ear and develops her voice by reading. The more the writer reads, the better she knows her tools. At the very least, reading helps you sharpen your ear for language, showing you how to eliminate awkward constructions, needless verbiage, and lifeless clichés.
Reading teaches you how to break the rules
All writers have their ideas about what makes a story, informed by their own tastes and experiences. Your sense of what’s possible in the world of fiction is only as great as the things you’ve read. While reading teaches you the rules of storytelling, it also teaches you how to break them. The novelist Rachel Kadish says she learns something from every sentence she reads. “But now and then,” she continues, “I happen across something that blows the doors off the literary barn and leaves me with an expanded sense of the possibilities of fiction.” You could write for a hundred years and learn less about what a story can be than if you had read a couple of good books over a weekend.
For me, the writer who’s been blowing the doors off my barn is Teju Cole. His novel, Open City, has no real plot to speak of. Instead, the tension, drama, and excitement are all in watching the protagonist’s fascinating and sometimes disturbing mind at work as he goes about his life in New York City. Over on Rap Genius, Cole’s annotated the opening paragraphs of the novel. It’s a great glimpse inside the mind of a writer and let’s you see exactly how much he was draws on other voices and works as he writes.
Reading makes writing less lonely
Finally, reading can be the greatest comfort to a writer stranded in the process of writing. As any writer knows, writing is a profoundly lonely profession: you spend hours and hours by yourself, strapped to a desk with your pen and paper (or, less romantically, your laptop). When I’m working on a story, at an ungodly late or early hour, and I’ve lost my sense of why I’m writing this story in the first place, I turn to my bookshelf. In those moments my books are my closest friends, the only ones capable of seeing me through the night. For me, those stories are “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World,” by Annie Proulx, “Spotted Horses,” by William Faulkner, and “The Zoo Attack,” from Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Writing is by its nature a venture into the unknown, into the deep woods of your own mind. And when you get lost in those woods it’s other books that are the proof that there’s a way out. Other writers become your fellow travellers exploring the endless landscape of fiction, providing you with maps and guidebooks, sending you reports from far-flung reaches you’d never have reached by yourself.
Justin Keenan is a fiction writer and Managing Editor at Rooster. He is originally from Louisville, Kentucky but now lives in Oakland, California. Follow him on Twitter.
Rooster is a mobile reading service for iPhone that helps busy people fit fiction into their days. They offer a monthly pairing of classic and contemporary novels delivered in short installments via their app. Follow Rooster on Twitter and Facebook.