A friend who teaches writing was puzzling over a student who worked hard, but just “didn’t have it.” It turns out this student doesn’t read.
I’m astonished by people who wish to be writers, but don’t read as a rule. That would be like wanting to be a musician, but not listening to music, or wanting to be a chef, and not enjoying food. By reading, a writer develops an instinct for what works … and what doesn’t. And why write if one doesn’t enjoy reading? It’s incomprehensible to me.
I often advise people who want to write, to write what they read. Often this ruffles — my suspicion is that they read commercial or genre fiction, and imagine themselves above that, on a so-called higher literary plane. If that’s the case, then that is the type of book they should be reading.
As a writer, one begins to read differently: for pleasure (always), but also for craft. I note changes in point-of-view, challenging structures. (The book Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose is excellent, as is Jane Smiley‘s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.)
Right now I’m reading The Boys in the Trees, by Mary Swan, and I’m reading it in a reverie of awe. It’s a brilliant book: she’s a brilliant writer. As a writer myself, it’s thrilling— and yes, humbling, I admit— to encounter a work of such daring reach. I’m studying the way she’s able to change point-of-view, the heart-stopping structure (the main characters abruptly changing a third of the way in!), the nuanced, rich details. Just gorgeous. Bravo!