Becoming the World's Strongest Writer

“To write, you must read.” - Kurt Vonnegut

“She needs to read more poetry if she ever wants to become a better writer,” insisted my colleague when talking about one of our weaker creative writing students. I agreed heartily, having browbeat a screenwriter friend with this idea for years. “But I need more time for writing,” he would counter. “I don’t have time for reading with a job and family.” “True enough,” I grudgingly admitted. This creates an apparent paradox for authors. We need quality input to generate quality output, but unless we have nothing else to do all day, reading books takes away from production. Nevertheless, this is a little like saying that eating protein takes away from weight-lifting. These activities are inter-related in such a way that one cannot exist meaningfully without the other. If that creative writing student does not ingest volumes of poetry, her own work will remain weak and frail, unable to lift the most generous reader’s heart.

Of course, we often need to research a subject before writing about it, and this is the most basic sort of necessary input, the sort no one can disagree with. To write a mystery novella that involved cryonics and cloning, I needed to research these disciplines, at least enough to use them without making factual errors. However, it’s not just ideas and data that we mine this input for, but style, words, images, and stories. While writing a book about hiking in Connecticut, I read dozens of long-distance walking and adventure stories. This input increased the quality of my final product in a way that would never have happened if I had not been reading. The rhythms of our language and the word choices we make do not appear from thin air. As a newborn baby learns its language from its parents, writers learn from their own literary lineage. The idea of “originality” may trouble some writers, but even divine inspiration comes from somewhere, by definition. We must take the language of others deep into our blood, combine it and transform it, and finally make it our own.

What if you just don’t have time for all this? Then, I’m sorry to say, it’s time to lose the popcorn and sugar snacks and get to the hard-core protein. What constitutes protein? Well, that depends on what you are writing. “Stop watching sports,” some teachers might say. Absolutely…if you’re not writing something that would benefit from it. If you’re composing a short story about a decaying baseball player or a screenplay about a crazy fan, then watching sports is the protein. If soap operas give you ideas for poems, then by all means watch them. Still, though it probably doesn’t need to be said, if you are working in the medium of writing, then reading other texts will usually be far more productive. Only you know what input is a guilty pleasure and what is both fruitful and soul-stirring.

Of course, it is hard to know exactly what will help us until we read, but we can guess. Recently, I visited a used bookstore and found an entire shelf of outdoor adventure stories that I longed to devour. A few years back I had gulped down many hearty meals of this genre while writing the hiking book I mentioned earlier. But now I was writing a memoir of college life that required a different approach and a different kind of input. So I passed those adventure stories by, searching for memoirs and college novels.

And that is the point. If someone wants to write the best she can, while holding down a job, a family, and an active lifestyle, then this critical attention to input is absolutely necessary. Critical attention does not mean you won’t enjoy the books. Read what you like, but push the boundaries, and read consistently and vigorously. In the long run, laziness in this regard is just as detrimental as sloth in the writing itself.

To increase the daily input, try alternate methods like books on tape. After listening to forty-eight lectuers on Ancient Egypt over a month of driving to work, I have more ideas than I can possibly produce. Maybe I overdid it, but what would I have done instead? Listen to the news or music? These are both worthy activities, but were not helping my writing, so I had to cut them. I try to read on breaks at work, on trains, in traffic jams, and at every boring event I am forced to attend. At all times I have a book as well as a notebook, ready to use at any spare moment. Waiting for a late student to show for a meeting becomes ten minutes of solid input. The more I read, the faster I get, devouring books like a champion bodybuilder. My reading comprehension skyrockets, and those snatches of reading during television commercials become actually productive.

As an author, your number one job is to start writing. We can get drawn in by the lure of input, as it is generally easier than the writing itself. It can become an “excuse” to put off our great masterpiece. Nevertheless, input and output build on each other, like lifting weights and eating protein. Writing, like weight-lifting, will make you hungrier, and eating protein-rich books will help those muscles grow. The more you do of both, the easier both become. If you want to be the World’s Strongest Writer, you have a lot of reading and writing to do.

First published in T-Zero: The Writer's Ezine.