I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve found that one of the biggest drawbacks to being a professional writer is that all of the time I spend at the keyboard, or staring at the wall, or walking around in a seeming daze as I work out just how high up a tree I’m going to chase my character and how sharp the rocks that I throw at him are going to be-well, let’s just say that it really cuts into my reading time. (How’s that for a first sentence?) And that puts me on the horns of a dilemma, so to speak: because I really really really want to write, and I also really really really want to read.
I’ve always been a reader, for as far back as I can remember. Partly genetics-Mom was a pretty avid reader-and partly environment: for a lot of reasons, I typically didn’t have many friends growing up, so I turned to books to fill the void.
I’ve said before that I came to a desire to write relatively late. I was not someone who knew he was going to be a writer at age 8, or 12, or 18, or even 28. But my reading prepared me for it nonetheless. I estimate I’d read 2000-plus novels by age 21, and kept on at an increasing pace. Somewhere along the way I soaked up a lot about writing, so that when I did finally begin writing, I had observed many examples of the craft, good and bad; all of which stood me in good stead.
When I finally did begin writing, I also began to read writers writing about writing. It wasn’t too long before I ran into a comment that worried me: an author stated that when he was writing a novel, he didn’t dare read anyone else’s fiction, because he didn’t want to run the risk of his work being affected by another author’s work and style.
I was new enough in the craft, and the author who made the comment was someone I liked well enough, that I accepted it as almost gospel. I immediately tried to change my habits so that I only read non-fiction while I was writing. And it didn’t work. I don’t mind non-fiction-I occasionally go on non-fiction binges, in fact. But I can’t live in non-fiction. I can’t lose myself in a story in non-fiction. So I kept sneaking away to some of my favorite authors and reading favorite chapters over again, feeling guilty, and all the while worried that I was somehow ruining my writing by doing so. (Truth is, I wasn’t good enough to sell yet so it didn’t matter, but my mind didn’t know that.)
Then some time later, I read an interview with another author I liked who was asked if he read other fiction while he was writing novels. His response was words to the effect of, “Sure! Doesn’t everyone?”
Great relief! My guilt evaporated, and I started enjoying fiction again while I was writing. And the take-away I got from that experience was that there is no One True Way when it comes to writing methods and styles and practices. Whatever works for me is what will work for me, and it may or may not work for you. What matters is that we find what works for each one of us, and that we write. To quote Kipling:
There are nine and sixty ways
Of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!
So I still read lots of fiction. Not as much as I used to, though, because the writing really does take away a lot of the time I used to devote to reading. And sometimes when I’m reading I do still feel a little guilty, but it’s usually because I know I should be pounding the keys to finish my current project.
I’ve concluded that the reading provides the loam from which my stories sprout. Or maybe a better metaphor is the reading is what the muse uses to charge up the batteries of my writing engine. If I don’t read, I don’t write.
Pardon me; I just bought the latest novel by Elizabeth Moon. I need to go charge up my batteries some more.