Jul 202012

It always stuns me how many writers and aspiring writers don’t read, don’t read very much, or used to read but don’t read any more. This includes writers who have had some commercial success.

For commercially successful writers, the “excuse,” — as if they really need one, which of course they don’t — is often one of two things.

First, successful writers often say they’re simply too busy to read books that aren’t their own.

Second, when they’re working on their own fiction, anything they reed tends to creep into what they write.

I’m going to add a third reason I’ve discovered in my own years as a published writer: if you read one friend’s book, you feel like you have to read every friend’s books. When you have thirty friends who write 3-6 books a year, well, that’s enough to make reading seem like a chore just on its own. There’s a reason that many professional fiction writers I talk to say their favorite part of the work is “research.” Calling it “research” gives you license to read what obsesses you at the moment, instead of feeling obligated to read all those books you long ago told someone you’d get to eventually.

In any event, there’s no point in my badmouthing the reading habits of writers who are getting published regularly and/or getting paid for it and/or having a satisfying creative experience. I assume they’re doing something right — by which I mean something that works for them creatively.

So I’ll contradict my headline directly; you don’t have to do anything to write, other than write. You can write a novel without ever having read a novel; I’m sure there’s some jackass out there who’s done it and rocketed up the Amazon best-seller lists. But if you’re a beginning writer, ask yourself this: why would you want to? If you aren’t in love with books, why do you want to waste your time writing one of your own?

I see it this way: Writing is a bit like conversation. You know those people who talk and talk and talk and talk and talk, and never listen? The ones who missed the “conversational turn-taking” part of child development (it’s sort of a package deal with potty training)? The ones who blather on about stuff  they don’t actually know much about — or anything about — but it’s so much work to contradict them that you end up just staring blankly at them and/or faking a heart attack? The ones who  never let anyone else get a word in edgewise, or when they do let you get a word edgewise, you can actually see the clockwork thingies going tick-tick-tick behind their crazed, dinner-plate Michele Bachmann eyes as they plan their next mini-rant for whenever you quit talking?

Aren’t those people annoying?

If you said “no,” then maybe you’re one of those people who never tires of hearing his or her own voice. In that case, mazel tov and keep writing. It’s certainly a common trait of writers, in my experience, that we have shitty filters. Oftentimes conversational turn-taking isn’t our strong suit, so, okay…whatever.

But if writing and reading are like conversations, it’s not just “politeness” that dictates you should shut up once in a while and let someone else talk to you. It’s psychologically meaningful to experience the words of others. And if you’re the sort of person who likes to write stories, then the more stories you experience, the easier and more fun it will be to tell them.

One of my favorite writers, Lester Bangs, said something about speed freaks that applies even more to writers: “Anyone who talks that much has to be a liar or they’d run out of things to say.”

The thing is, when you’re writing fiction you’re starting by being a liar; if you’re not making stuff up then you’re doing it wrong. But there’s supposed to be a narrative truth shimmed underneath the wobbly table on which you’re building your house of cards. It helps if you have a regular and positive experience of what that satisfying narrative feels like.

If you can’t find time to read because you’re so busy writing…mazel tov. But when those words run out and you need to clear your head, don’t listen to the crazed, book-hating devil-hippies who tell you to do something dangerous like meditate. Don’t listen to your psycho, anti-intellectual fiend of a so-called “doctor” and hop on the elliptical trainer or the treadmill.

Not without grabbing a book first.

If you want to be a writer, all you absolutely have  to do is write.

But I can tell you from experience: you’ll probably enjoy it more if you also read.