One of the more popular approaches to learning how to write well has long been to read, read, read. Some writing teachers even encourage their students to copy, word for word, passages or stories from their favorite writers as though, through osmosis, they will learn to write better.
How true is that?
It seems that by copying the words of an established writer one learns how to copy, not necessarily how to write. The same is true, maybe, about reading. The more you read, the better you become at… reading?
In an essay on the website psyche.co, titled, “How to Read Less and Think for Yourself More,” David Bather Woods, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK, quotes liberally from Arthur Schopenhauer and Marcel Proust to make the case that reading should be a means to an end, but not the end itself—that what you read and how you read it are more important than the quantity of reading material.
There are many writers, some famous, who claimed that they learned to write by reading copious amounts of work by the writers who inspired them. So many that this approach has become something of a standard in creative writing circles. But Woods’s essay is more inspiring to me, personally, than any of that. I’ve never been one to want to copy anyone else’s words. And I certainly wouldn’t call myself well-read, particularly in comparison to academics who can quote by heart passages from dozens of writers in the literary pantheon. Book knowledge only translates into effective writing if the concepts learned while reading are synthesized into the reader’s existing knowledge base (which, I suspect, is what those famous writers really meant to say). Reading, whether a lot or not a lot, is only one part of that equation. Woods, using Schopenhauer and Proust to back him up, claims that too many people substitute what they’ve read for their own opinions, and that just reading more doesn’t make them any smarter. Assume that’s true for a second and apply it to emerging writers, the ones who are most susceptible to the influences of other, established writers—are they learning to write well and develop their own style, or only to write better, or are they merely killing time? The answer seems to depend on the reader’s disposition, a variety of psychological, cultural, and situational factors the reader brings to a book, and that seems to support what Woods is saying.
Woods quotes from Schopenhauer: “Reading is a mere surrogate for one’s own thinking…erudition makes most people even more stupid and simple than they already are by nature.” And, “The only way reading shapes us for writing is that it teaches us the use we can make of our own natural gifts…” Apparently Schopenhauer didn’t have much faith in the average person, particularly those who didn’t have the educational advantages he had. (He’s another author I have not read well.) But I think what he’s saying that’s helpful here is that without thoughtful analysis reading is merely an exercise in memorization, not comprehension. The information gleaned from reading is often used only to support a pre-existing belief, not to challenge that belief. (He also seems to be broaching the subject of whether some people are born to be writers while others are not. Perhaps I’ll explore that one next time.)
Proust was more poetic about it: “The supreme effort of the writer as of the artist only succeeds in raising partially for us the veil of ugliness and insignificance that leaves us incurious before the universe.” The implication is that we must do the rest ourselves, and that if we are not already curious about the universe no amount of reading is going to make us change.
I can’t help wondering how many excellent writers bristled against the recommendations that they received to read until their eyes are ready to fall out, and copy passages, and now are afraid to admit it because of the stigma the creative writing world has applied to being less well read than your department chair. While in school I slogged through many books that I found tedious and unhelpful, and which I would quickly abandon now. Others, however, had me re-reading passages asking, “How did the writer do that? How did she provoke such an emotional reaction in me?” Those books encouraged me to develop a more interdisciplinary approach, to look beyond just the words on the page and into the structure of the work, how it carefully created a foundation that primed the reader to have that reaction. They helped me begin to see how closely tied good writing is to psychology, how certain structures and words can trigger responses. That depends a lot on the individual reader’s culture, education, etc., but that’s another blog as well.
The essay does, however, dovetail nicely with what Orca wants to see in the submission queue. We love thoughtful stories that come from a unique perspective. We’d rather see a story that shows how a writer has thought through a situation, than one that mimics a plot or a style from a better known writer. We want to see the influences of great writers applied to your own way of looking at the world, more than we want to see how well you can mirror someone else’s style or perceptions.
– Joe Ponepinto