There is so much “advice” out there for aspiring writers that it can be difficult to separate what is useful from what is not. Typically, published authors who have experienced a great level of success and public recognition are asked to dispense their wisdom in a list of “tips” for those of us who are still trying to make it. Most of the time, these authors are reluctant to give advice because every writer’s path to publishing is different; there is no foolproof formula, for if there was, everyone would adopt it and we’d all be blissfully sitting on the bestsellers list.
Looking back on all the advice that I’ve read in author interviews or heard dispensed from podiums at writers’ festivals, there is only one nugget of wisdom that persists in my memory:
“If you want to become a better writer, read. Read, Read, Read.”
I don’t even remember where I heard this or who said it. Perhaps, it’s been said more than once by more than one writer or maybe it is an accumulation of all the advice I’ve heard through the years; who knows? What I do know for sure is that for me, it rings true. It certainly can’t hurt a writer to be well-read. In an interview with The Paris Review, Freedom author Jonathan Franzen, discusses his reading habits during the early days of his career:
“I read fiction four or five hours a night every night for five years. Worked through Dickens, the Russians, the French, the moderns, the postmoderns. It was like a return to the long reading summers of my youth, but now I was reading literature, getting a sense of all the ways a story could be made.”
I guess you could say reading plays a major role in a writer’s education. I am always a little skeptical of writers who do not read, for why on earth would they want to write? I once did a course with a student who declared to the entire class that they “hated reading” and had not read a book in ages because they detest them. This is like saying “I really want to be an Olympic swimmer but I hate water.” Needless to say, this statement was followed by an unbroken silence as we sat blinking in disbelief.
Reading plays a significant role in a writer’s life; the books we read usually serve as the impetus to embark on a career as a writer in the first place. Creative writing courses, being quite structured in nature, work for some and not for others. For me, there’s no better (or cheaper) way to learn how to write than from those who are fortunate enough to be part of the literary canon. It boils down to what works for the individual and what they believe is necessary to becoming the best writer they can be.