Wednesday, December 22, 2010

For the Love of Reading

How many times have we heard it said that as writers, we must also be readers? And that's true, of course. But it's also true that as writers, we must read differently than other readers. We read not merely for the love of reading, but for the education and challenge of it.

I don't know about you, but now that I'm writing fiction, reading other writers' work can be pretty intimidating. It brings to the surface all those "am I good enoughs?" and "what the hell am I thinkings?" I tend to struggle with. I've come to realize, though, that those feelings of doubt and insecurity are a good thing, because they're what challenge me and drive me forward. I read, and it makes me want to write. I write, and it makes me want to read. And all of it makes me want to write better ... and makes me realize I can.
I read a great passage recently in a blog post by Maud Newton at The Millions. She articulated beautifully this idea of reading as a catalyst to better writing:

"When I’m writing, really writing, I read selfishly. Not only do I want to be awestruck, I want to be driven to write better — as well as I possibly can — and I want to feel that the book I’m reading, however superior to my own work, shows me how I might do that. I want it to lead by example."

Yes! Well said. Bring on the insecurity! Bring on the self-doubt! Because along with it comes the burning desire to write more, to write better, to hone my craft.

There's a flip side to this, though. Reading for reading's sake is a different animal than reading for writing's sake. When I'm reading for pure enjoyment, for the pure love of words, I can lose myself entirely in a story. I'm not mindful of where the author decides to place a modifier or why she chooses an em-dash instead of a semi-colon. I don't think, "Oh, what a brilliant sentence," or "Ooh, I wouldn't have used that word there." But now that I'm writing, I can't help that.

I'm not saying I can't still lose myself in a great book. But I also can't lose my critical eye, even if I try.

I read a really good book a few weeks ago (which I won't name in order to avoid spoiling it for anybody else) and was having one of those book-in-one-hand, spoon-stirring-pot-on-stove-in-the-other-hand moments - I couldn't put it down. Here I was, living in this world the author had created, feeling what the characters felt, cringing in anticipation of the inevitable disaster. Then right when the story reached its pinnacle, when the inevitable happened and the tension was at its most tense, the author broke in with a narrator-esque, sing-songey speech to the reader, waxing poetic about the characters and their fates. It very nearly ruined the book for me because it pulled me so abruptly from the story. The funny thing is, though, I don't think I'd even have noticed it if it weren't for this critical eye I've developed through writing.

It's an occupational hazard, for sure, and one I was already familiar with. For years I haven't been able to read a newspaper or magazine story without mentally editing it, and since going to design school I can't simply sit and enjoy my surroundings without rearranging them in my head. It's not an ego thing. (Struggling with self-doubt and insecurity, remember?) It just is.

Again, I think it's a good thing. As writers, we have to be aware. Aware of our surroundings, aware of human behaviors, aware of words and how each individual writer shapes them. It helps us discover our own shape, I think. Our own voice.


  1. Great points Stacey - I definitely get lost but I also always have a critical eye now, if not in the moment then afterwards.

    (Surfed over here from Writer Unboxed I believe)

  2. Hi 52 Faces! I was talking about this to one of my best friends, and I think her exact words when I told her I can't read a book anymore without analyzing the writing were, "That must suck." LOL! But it doesn't really. It takes some of the mystique out of it, but knowing something about the process of writing helps me appreciate a great book more, I think.

  3. You should go back and read Twilight again. That's all I'm gonna say about that ;)

  4. Great post!
    I thought I was too busy to read. Now I have made some time and really enjoy doing something I love.