Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Reading to Be Write

Reading is to writing like water is to a fish. A couple years ago I realized that, somewhere around my middle thirties, all my reading had metamorphosed from fiction and poetry to research and essays. I was reading thick tomes on Ancient Egypt and the Wild West with a collector's avidity and little focus on the writing. The irony is that my abandonment of reading fiction coincided with my eager beavering at writing fiction. I was reading to learn about the places and periods that inspired me to write.

It took me a while to realize that I was no longer in touch with the storytellers that had created a love of literature in me in the first place. A couple years back I pledged to make the time to read novels and short stories again. I decided that as a writer I need to breathe in and absorb the work of other artists; not to mimic them but to learn from and be inspired by them.

As a kid I totally absorbed the classics and many of the great writers of the last couple of centuries from Dostoevsky, to Dickens, to Hardy. I read Lord of the Rings about ten times (yes I was that geeky child) before the age of sixteen. As an adult I have had far more difficulty getting into novels. I'm still looking for good writing but I also need good stories and a lot of modern novelists of the literary variety leave me cold - yes, I'm that kind of luddite. I still believe in story and plot. It's all style and in the head when I want something to actually happen. So from the classics of my youth I have been reading more along the lines of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard.

Much as I admire King's storytelling ability and craftsmanship (and have tried to absorb the lessons in writing that he can deftly apply) he can be lacking in the sheer beauty of words. Elmore Leonard is the king of 'spare' dry bones fiction and I'm finding that isn't what I want either. It's highly praised by editors and other writers at this moment in time, but I consider it just one style and just one possibility and not necessarily the pinnacle of literary mastery. I recently read No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and it was excellent - the writing both hard edged and lyrical at the same time. McCarthy is an author that inspires me to be a better writer, and to pick up more of his books.

The key to reading fiction in order to learn to write better yourself is to read more thoughtfully. It doesn't mean you have to lose the rhythm of the story. It's more akin to enjoying fine wine. You just don't pour it into a jelly jar and gulp it down; you breathe in the aroma, sifting through the myriad scents, sip, roll it over your tongue, and then drink that baby all up. Feel free to mark passages that strike you. Query word choices that pull you up short and take you out of the story. Go back and read excellent bits again.

You should even feel free to mimic as a writing exercise, just remembering that all this reading and even mimicry is just a passage to finding your own style and rhythm.

So which writers inspire you? I would love to hear back from you all - so that I can find other gems and continue on my literary journey of discovery.


L. Diane Wolfe said...

Anne McCaffrey inspired me. Her books were easy to read but engaging, and so character-driven. My fiction reflects that quality.

And I was a geek, too - read The Hobbit when I was only eleven!

L. Diane Wolfe “Spunk On A Stick”

Pan Historia said...

Easy to read is an interesting quality - and one that is more difficult than a lot of writers think. I think it's much like the seeming ease that a great trapeze artist gives to their performance, or a prima ballerina, and yet it takes a great deal of practice.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I've been delving into some of the more popular literary fiction lately, Secret Life of Bees, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, and some others. I find that the prose is lyrical, the plot engaging, and the characters are richly developed.

And I tried Hemingway too. Blecch.

And just for giggles, my security word for this comment is panistis. :)

Helen Ginger said...

I love hearing your suggestions. It actually pains me to mark a book, an old hangup from childhood, but I'm getting over that hangup. Marking passages is a great idea for quick referencing.

When I read Time Traveler's Wife, I was inspired by the way the author approached time and the structure of the novel. When I read Geek Love, I was fascinated by the newness of it. I had never read anything like it.

Straight From Hel

Karen Walker said...

Just wanted to say hello and thank you for visiting my blog and letting me know about you. So many writers inspire me, it would be hard to choose one, but as a child, it would have to be Louisa May Alcott and "Little Women," which made me want to be Jo and write.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I just finished reading a Time Traveler's Wife and can't get it out of my head. It had a very unique set-up and the characters were bold, hard to forget.

Oh, BTW, there's a little something for you at my blog. :)

Pan Historia said...

Looks like I should try the The Time Traveler's Wife - it seems popular.