Reading to Write

“Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write” once said Annie Proulx, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Shipping News.

As writers and wannabe writers and anyone who has ever contemplated putting pen to paper or tapping frantically on their keyboard knows, in order to write one must read. And one must read widely, or so we are told. Be adventurous with your genres of choice. Read classics and contemporary, read short and long, read prose and poetry, just read. For a very long time I did not heed this advice.

The best thing to come out of studying for my arts degree was an exposure to genres I would never have willingly picked off the shelf. I was forced to read Franz Kafka, whose imagination bewildered me, what sort of person would even think of a human becoming a bug? I had to read Paul Auster and then I read him again and again just for fun, determined to follow him through his language maze and sometimes, just for a moment, understanding him before I realised I didn’t. Why had I never read Bill Bryson prior to having to study him? I wish someone had mentioned him earlier. I feel the same about Marguerite Duras. Why did no one ever say to me, “hey, have you read The Lovers yet?”.

Sometimes I do find favourite authors and books through recommendations. Like Karl Ove Knausgaard, who manages to break every rule of writing but still seductively draws the reader deeper and deeper into his world until it is incredibly difficult to swap his books for real life duties like making dinner or sleeping. Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ work “Women who run with the Wolves” both inspired and educated me with the stories, myths and fairytales from different cultures. Endorsements of authors also often come to me by way of writers’ festivals, which is exactly how I found Geoff Dyer. Not only was he hilarious to listen to, his books are good reads, especially for the late afternoon commute home on the train.

When I was writing the first and subsequent drafts of my memoir about my father and our relationship, I read other memoirs around the same subject; WW II. Books like A Fifty-Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot, Dancing on One Foot, Growing up in Nazi Germany by Shanti Elke Bannwart and Letters from Berlin by Kerstin Lieff, helped me understand the times my father had lived in. Now I am attempting to write a short story, I am drawing on authors such as Joan Didion and Helen Garner to assist.

What are you reading? Do you challenge yourself by reading different genres, or do you stick to a few authors who you are comfortable with? Do you, as a writer, read for purpose? Or do you read to get away from whatever you are writing? How do you find the next book to read – recommendation, referral or Google?

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Susan

    I’ve always loved reading – since long before I began to write. I tend to go through stages of reading a single author, then branching away into something different, usually on the recommendation of a reading or writing friend.

    I love to browse libraries and bookshops, either with a list garnered from friends, or just waiting for something to catch my eye. I also find new authors by clicking on recommended reads that are suggested on Goodreads.

    You’re right about reading widely, and in genres we would not normally choose. Some of my favourite reads have come from unexpected sources and are all the more enjoyable for it.


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