For Thursday, November 5, 2015:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
A young friend who writes confessed to me that she rarely reads. She’s actually a decent writer, so I was quite surprised to hear that she’s not a reader. At some point in her life she must’ve read, or maybe her parents read to her a lot when she was a child. The thing is, she won’t be a better writer if she doesn’t read now as an adult. I hope she can discover that, like a master woodworker or master mechanic, she can’t improve if she doesn’t immerse herself in the process of the craft and the art form.
Some people who write, or who say they want to write, are worried that if they read others’ writings they will end up using others’ words or ideas. Some fiction writers won’t read other fiction, some poets won’t read other poets. They say they want to ensure the works they craft will be their own and not derivative. While the intention is admirable — they don’t want to plagiarize, even if it’s unintentional, or they don’t want to be influenced by anyone else — they’re truncating their growth as writers. They eliminate their base of knowledge and example, there is no foundation upon which to build their art.
Virginia Woolf’s advice to ‘Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river’ is sound and necessary. In my far-from-humble opinion, all writers must know the world of literature from which they spring. They need to read the classics in all — or at least many — of the genres available to us. We need to know fairy tales and myths, who Beowulf is and why he is important, how Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales made the evolving English language more accessible to the ‘common people’ (hat tip to Rita Mae Brown for that reminder) and what we learned from his pilgrims. Shakespeare, of course, is a given, and so is Mark Twain and Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sylvia Plath, and so many others. Without their hard-won foundation, we can’t know what works or doesn’t work in the writings of William Faulkner, Steinbeck or Hemingway or Kate Chopin or Naomi Shabib Nye or Mary Oliver, Langston Hughes, Zorah Neale Hurston, T. S. Eliot, or the different versions of the Faustus tales, or … or … or …
Literature represents who we are as human beings, at given times and places in the epochs of our evolution as a people. Yes, we can write — and many people obviously do — without the foundation of all those who have gone before us. If we haven’t grown up with this foundation, it’s never too late to start. We become more fully developed writers, and we become better human beings because we discover, meet, and come to know, ourselves and our neighbors in the stories — in whatever genre — that have come before us.
It’s never too late to start adding tools to our toolbox. It’s never too late to discover who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. The more we read, the more we can discover together. And that is why we write.