“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” (Stephen King)
When I first read this quote, I thought it a little harsh, candidly. But as I’ve chewed on it over the past year or so, I think it is a statement of reality.
I’m a voracious reader. If you’ve visited The Upside regularly, you know that. So I am not intimidated by Stephen King’s perspective on the importance of reading as preparation for effective writing. Why?
I am a musician. I play guitar and piano. In fact, I’ve been playing guitar since 1976. I acquired my chops by learning the songs and imitating the styles of my heroes—Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Phil Keaggy, etc. Imitation, in writing as in music and an array of other disciplines, is the way we learn and then cultivate our own voice, our own style. What we see modeled, we emulate.
So, is King’s observation fair?
I think it is. His excellent and hilarious book—from which the above quote is taken—On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, details his own development as a writer and the importance reading played in his own life, inspiring him to write. It is an insightful and easy read. Just the other night, I laughed myself to tears as I worked through about eighty pages. Stephen King is one of the most unpretentious writers one will ever meet.
Confession: Though I’ve read most of his book on writing, I’ve not yet read one of his novels. But I’m sure I will.
But why is reading important for an aspiring writer? Simply this. For one, you are exposed to information and perspective which you’d otherwise have not considered. But more to the point, reading is apprenticeship. An apprentice learns his or her craft, whatever it is, by sitting at the feet or standing beside a master or mistress of the same. We learn by what is modeled to us. To avoid reading is to diminish perspective and stunt growth in skill.
It is interesting to me that John Wesley once told the Methodist ministers under his leadership either to read or leave the ministry. Was he being harsh? Uppity? Not at all. He just knew that failure to read was to leave oneself vulnerable to the prison of a very narrow perspective: One’s own. Same with King.
Illiteracy is certainly a problem in our land. And, to be fair and charitable, reading does not come with ease or delight to all. But you must keep at it. We have at our disposal these days all sorts of vehicles that deliver us information—books, blogs, websites, audio and video files. Whatever you do, if you are a communicator with an audience, you must learn and process information, perspective, and style. There are no shortcuts.
So…if you’re not reading and learning and growing, begin now. You’ll be pleased with the results in your writing and in your life.