1. Books don’t bite.
2. Books (good or bad) can teach you a lot.
3. For most writers, reading was the initial spark, and I firmly believe that for most writers, reading is essential to sustaining the flame.
Allow me to elaborate.
First of all, the key word is “afraid.” If you don’t read while you write because it’s a distraction, I totally understand. If you don’t read while you write because you don’t have time, I can sympathize. But if you don’t read while you write because you’re worried about plagiarizing or “losing your voice”… quit your nonsense!
Would Bob Dylan avoid listening to music because he’s working on a new album? Did Andy Warhol stop going to galleries every time he began a new painting? Does Johnny Depp boycott movies whenever he’s in the middle of filming?
Of course not. Artists across all genres recognize the importance of being inspired by (and educated about) the work of their peers. And they know that it’s okay to be influenced. In fact, they often embrace it. Many musicians, painters, and actors proudly cite the people/styles that had an impact on them. So why have we writers gotten so paranoid about “copying” one another?
Did you know that some writing programs require you to imitate the style of other authors? Write with the brevity and understatement of Ernest Hemingway. Try your hand at veiled social commentary like Jane Austen’s. That practice – parroting the work of a proven master – is called apprenticeship. A couple hundred years ago, it was all the rage.
And if learning from one another isn’t reason enough, how about this: as writers, we should love to read! Isn’t that what got us started on this crazy path in the first place? I remember falling in love with Amelia Bedelia, Ms. Frizzle and the Magic School Bus, and Anne of Green Gables. They made me laugh, took me on great adventures, and taught me about life. They made me want to create my own charming characters and stories.
Still to this day, whenever I’m stuck on a scene, struggling with dialogue, or second-guessing a plot point, the first place I turn is my bookshelf. There are an infinite number of suggestions there. Endless beauty and surprise and delight.
So it kind of breaks my heart when I hear about other writers rejecting that wealth, that resource, out of fear.
Look, I know everybody works differently, and I am not saying all writers should read while they work on their manuscripts. But I would love if, in 2011, more of us would resolve to trust our voices (the same way we trust our speaking voices to be original) and embrace from both sides the very things we cherish most: books.
Write them. Read them. Love them.
(Photo courtesy of Daehyun Park)