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Reading writers of influence: the importance of reading and writing

If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write. – Stephen King, On Writing

I read Stephen King’s On Writing sometime around 2003 or so, before my husband and I were married. I was working at Starbucks, and getting ready to enter my MA program after having been wait listed for an MFA. At the time, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing with my life; I had relocated 800 miles south, was living in an old, drafty, flea-infested one-bedroom apartment in a crumbling Victorian, and I was adrift on the sea, as it were. I had about five versions of one novel I had been working on for years, a ton of poetry, and some really crappy short stories I’d never submit; I was close to giving it up, actually. Michael handed me On Writing and said something along the lines of, “It’s not perfect, but it’ll help.”

He was right. It did help, immensely. I’d started reading Stephen King very early, likely too early (rather uncomfortably I learned a great deal about sex and sexuality from reading his books… my well meaning parents just had no freaking idea). But hearing his voice, his own voice, in the guise of a kind of manual was extremely helpful for me at that point. I won’t say I ran head-first into writing again, and polished off two manuscripts in a year. God, no. It took me another two years or so to even finish the book I’d been working on since I was 18, and even now, it sorta sits… reminding me of its multiplicity of faults. Ah, but that is not the point.

I recall the section where Mr. King goes on at length about the connection between reading and writing. Up until that point, I really didn’t know any other novel writers. For the most part it’s something I did alone, making the rules up as I went along. But I’d always read and wrote at the same time. It was a really cool moment of self-affirmation there, that I was at least doing something right, even if the actual writing project sucked.

It used to be that I could pick up almost any book, be it Dragonlance or Sons and Lovers, and fall immediately into a well of inspiration. But I find that these days, it’s a lot harder for me to find the right book that will get those gears moving. I don’t know if three years of literary criticism did it, or if just improving as a writer myself did it, but it’s a little frustrating sometimes. It’s almost as if I need literary companions on every writing adventure I take, but these days I’m looking over their resumes a little more carefully.

Thankfully, at the moment, I’m thoroughly invested in Emma Bull’s Territory, a take on the mythos behind the infamous Earp brothers in Tombstone and the shootout at the O.K. Corral. I am trying desperately to savor the book, but it is so beautifully written that I continue to pick it up and devour it. Bull has a fascinating style, and she uses both a broad and a narrow brush to add life and excitement to her prose. From page one, Tombstone sprung to life in my mind, the characters are endearing and frightening; the story moves between the day-to-day and the extraordinary with a kind of elegance that is captivating. I find myself not only reading and enjoying the story (cowboys and sorcerers? You had me at hello…) but looking at the prose for long periods of time, noting the space, the pacing, the cadence. I’m looking at it much the same way that I do with poetry.

While my WIP could have nothing less to do with cowboys, it doesn’t matter. Reading a really good writer inspires me to be a better writer, to measure my words more carefully, to be more thoughtful. I tend to write very fast (I type around 100 wpm) and am often so busy telling the story I don’t take the moments to pull the strands more tightly, to make an intricate stitch (to use a knitting metaphor). I’m so busy knitting the sweater, that when it’s done it looks like a sweater, but it’s a little boring. The right inspiration, a writer of influence, helps me add a cable here and there to what I’m doing. I hope, anyway!

So have any of you been reading writers lately that help you in your writing? Or any that have been detrimental? I know some writers use more visual stories, like television shows and movies to this same effect.

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  • Erik Stell

    I’ve found that sinking my teeth into a good story revitalizes that spark of desire within me to write. It happened when I first started reading Jordan’s Wheel of Time, again with Martin’s Song of Fire & Ice, and most recently with Butcher’s Dresden Files series.

    My teacher says you get a nickels worth of knowledge from every artist/writer you meet. I’d say that statement is true, only incomplete. I say in addition to the nickel, you get a quarter’s worth of inspiration.

  • Natania

    @Erik You know I think George R. R. Martin was a little too encompassing. I don’t think I wrote a lick of anything while I read his series. All I wanted to do was read! But his influence certainly was far-reaching. The neat thing about Territory is that it’s standalone. It’s not a huge series. I’m always thinking of writing in terms of series, and it’s overwhelming; I’m writing a standalone (though it could expand) and I think being invested on a smaller scale is a huge help for me right now.

  • Margaret Diehl

    I’m afraid that as writers (and readers) get older, it becomes harder to get lost in a book. You know how it’s done but you also know the world better. You can still find companionship but not those mythic loves.

    • Natania

      @Margaret That’s spot on. There’s a certain unadulterated amazement we have in our youth that allows us to just consume books… frenzied, fantastic. We get swept up in the stories so completely. I love the term “mythic love”–it is so like that.

  • marchbooks

    It’s almost as if I need literary companions on every writing adventure I take, but these days I’m looking over their resumes a little more carefully.

    VERY interesting. For myself, I am still reading, but my lifelong affair with fiction has taken a sabbatical. It has been completely replaced by my rabid consumption of nonfiction as it relates to writing, publishing, design, formatting and marketing. As I write this, my desk buckles under the weight of a stack of manuals waiting to be digested.

    But, that’s okay for now. In time, I will return to my first love. Until then, I will have to satisfy my love of fiction with the stories in my own head.

    elizabeth @ March Books

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