Writers read

Auston Kleon slapped me upside the head with his opening thought in an interview on the web page On Substack:

“It was a great shock to me when I was younger and I realized that most great writers probably read five times as much as they write.”

You have heard the adage, “Writers write.”

But there is an important corollary: “Writers read.”

“Who are your inspirations?” The great writers will rattle off a list of classic and contemporary names, a list that tells you they are putting words in front of their eyes at least as much as they are hurling words from their fingers.

If you want to be the next Shakespeare or the next Stephen King or the next Neil Gaiman or (you knew I’d say it) the next Ray Bradbury, you can certainly begin by reading, enjoying, and studying the works of Shakespeare, King, Gaiman and Bradbury. How can you know what you’re doing if you don’t expose yourself to how it’s done?

Almost 30 years ago I started keeping a record of the books I read. I’m ashamed to admit that in some of those early years I hardly read at all — there’s one year where my Books Read file has a mere 14 titles. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get much writing done then, either, except at the day job.

The rise of the audiobook has created a surge in my exposure to books. Where once I might have listened to a favorite album or radio station as I drove to and from the day job, I started putting a book into the CD slot and later the USB connector. I became a fan of Jim Dale and George Guidall and Grover Gardner and other prolific narrators, as well as the authors whose work they were reading to me.

Of course I still sit in my blue chair with a paper book or my Kindle, but it’s the 8-10 hours a week alone in my car that’s responsible for my Books Read file averaging 80 or 90 titles the last few years. Last year I cracked 100 for the first time.

Not coincidentally, I have become a more prolific writer during those same years. You can’t read magnificent stories and marvelous turns of phrase without being inspired to give it a go yourself.

So you want to be a writer? Who do you want to read? If you can’t answer that question by rattling off a half-dozen or so favorite writers without breaking a sweat, you have a lot more reading to do before you write.

Wait, don’t let that stop you. It’s foolish of me to suggest “Don’t even attempt to write until you’re an avid reader.” No, you go and write your heart out. (Hey! That’s a good expression, isn’t it? Write your heart out, because if your heart’s not on the page, you need to try harder.)

Write your heart out — but start reading, too. You may not notice right away, but the more you expose yourself to good writing, the better your own writing will be. It rubs off.

If you want to be a writer, sit down and start writing. If you want to be a better writer, sit down and start reading.

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