Reading. My friend Joyce McDonald, a fine writer, said something that inspired this year’s thread of activity on Dancing with the Gorilla. She said, “I read 200 books last year.” I about fell out of my seat.
I’ve let reading good literature (and bad literature with a good cover on it) fall to the wayside. Teaching writing classes means you read manuscripts. Lots of them. Often too many of them for your own good as a writer. Now, some of them are very fine, but many of them need a lot of editing. And you’re reading with editing in mind, even when they are good, and that’s not the same mindset that absorbs good storytelling in the most luscious way.
My ex once said he wouldn’t play tennis with me anymore because I was ruining his game. Don’t boo him. He was right. Have you seen my hand-eye coordination?
His point was that for him to improve, he needed to play with someone who played better than he did. Writing is a lot like that. I’m not saying my students’ work is making me lose my game. Some of my students write better than I do! But, there’s a hazard if I’m only reading working manuscripts, no matter how good they are. That shouldn’t be my entire reading diet.
If you want to write better—and you should want that every day, no matter how good you are—you need to read work that inspires you to higher standards, to more innovative expression, richer language, stronger characterization, and so on. It’s like eating your fruits and vegetables. It helps you build lean language muscle and improve your writing metabolism.
When I was writing Sufficient Grace, I got up in the morning, wrote my morning pages (see The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron), and then read a short story or a chapter of a novel by one of my favorite writers or by a writer someone had recommended to me. I read these small tastes of fiction like someone eats one chocolate morsel at day from the Whitman’s Sampler. Often I picked up the book later in the day, but I made sure I had eaten at least that one bonbon of good writing before I went to my desk to write. I read quite a few books that way. Later I made the suggestion to a young working mother with small children who had signed up for my extended novel workshop, and she eventually reported that she had read 14 books in a year following my suggestion.
My goal is to read a book a week, beyond what’s day-job related or required. Of course, I read a lot of good books related to work, but I’m talking about a book I’m craving. It’s on that list I never get to, either because I’m lazy or need sleep. Except now, I’m going to get to it. Here’s what I’ve devoured so far this year, and I highly recommend both of these treats. They taste good enough to savor. I’ve loved Gabriel Garcia-Marquez since I was an undergraduate in college and read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Lately, I’ve taken to hunting down his novellas and reading them. Of Love and Other Demons packs a big taste in a small package. I started reading Cary Holladay’s work only a few years ago, when I was her student in the MFA Program at University of Memphis. If you haven’t read Cary’s work, you’re missing out. I suggest you start with The Quick Change Artist. Talk about bonbons!