Writers who don’t read are posers. Is there a singer who doesn’t listen to music? A painter who doesn’t look at pictures? An actor who doesn’t watch movies? Of course not. But I’ve met more than one so-called writer who doesn’t read anything except his/her own material. This is the I-want-to-blow-my-horn syndrome, and has less to do with writing than with desperately needing attention. Fortunately, this type isn’t usually found among the ranks of published authors.
Reading intensifies what you know. It introduces you to things you don’t know. It examines points of view you may not have entertained. And most important of all, it expands your world so that you can write with authority about more than the tiny microcosm in which you live… and with greater authority about that same microcosm.
By reading, you also get an idea of what’s selling. I’m not talking about scoping the market – that is, trying to figure out what editors are looking for and then writing something to order – because that never works. By the time you write your imitation of this year’s hot new book, the publishing pundits have already moved onto the next big thing. But it helps to know, for example, that one-word titles are popular at the moment. Or that weird memoirs are big. Or that YA is no longer relegated to the Children’s Book table in bookstores. Or that lawyer novels are still strong. Or that supernatural themes are quietly overtaking overt horror.
What you don’t read can tell you a lot, too. If you got it into your head when you were 19 years old to write a science fiction story about UFOs, but haven’t read any science fiction in twenty years, that’s a big clue that your passion may no longer reside in that field. To find out what you really want to write about, take a look at what you read. I’m talking about the stuff you really read, not what you tell your friends/other writers/the book club you belong to/your students/interviewers. If it’s a guilty pleasure, you ought to be writing it.
Another self-revelatory exercise is remembering what you read as a child. When I first tried to remember my favorite reading material, I was embarrassed to admit (and when I did admit it, it was only to myself) that I read fairy tales. I wasn’t into Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. I didn’t read Treasure Island or Dickens like the smart kids in class did, or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I didn’t play D & D. I read Rumplestiltskin and Snow White and Rose Red. I read comic books, and not the cool ones, either. I loved Little Lulu and her fantasies of getting lost in the beebleberry patch and running into Witch Hazel. I loved Casper the Friendly Ghost and his girlfriend Wendy the Good Witch. I savored Pippi Longstocking’s many adventures, which she handled with absolute aplomb and with the help of no one except for the horse that lived in her house with her. And I dreamed constantly about the fabulous court of King Arthur.
I realize now that that – that world I found in those books – was where I wanted to live. And each year that I mature as an artist, I grow closer to that vision in my work. I still want to be Pippi Longstocking and Little Lulu and live in Camelot, where a being named Merlin has sacrificed the life of a mortal man in order to pursue magic.
Perhaps that was the Portrait of the Artist that affected me most.