Over lots of years teaching creative writing, a few times I have lamented that I didn’t choose another profession. Real estate? Long haul trucking?
One lament came through a letter from a former student. He had written to thank me for a certain piece of advice he believed I had given. The advice, “If you want to write, don’t read.”
After my brain quit reeling, I remembered the class and what I had actually said. I told them about a professor who advised his writing students not to read other writers. And I declared that advice the most wrongheaded nonsense I could imagine.
Why, I wonder, would anyone not addicted to reading want to write? If we didn’t love books, why on earth would we care to create them? I can’t fathom the arrogance of someone believing that what he writes is worthy of being read by others while nothing else written is worthy of him reading.
In my world, the act of writing presumes a commitment to learning, so that what we write is as grounded in truth and wisdom as we can make it. And reading is the most efficient way to learn. Sure, we can learn from other experience and from observation, but we might have to experience or observe months or years of hell (easy enough to come by but hardly pleasant to endure) or bliss (not so easy to come by) to gain the insights a single great book can deliver.
One of the benefits to being a writer is that we aren’t, like many folks in the arts, obliged to strike gold while we’re young. The longer we live, the more we learn, the better our books can become, if we don’t constrain ourselves to writing in accord with popular trends; if we allow the depth and breadth of our work to grow as our minds grow.
The most common advice I hear given to aspiring writers is to write every day. Surely that’s a valuable habit, but I’ll suggest that at least as valuable, to apprentice and veteran writers alike, is the habit of reading something good every day.
Note the word good in the previous sentence, please.