23 October 2017

Writing and Reading

by Steve Liskow

Last week, I met a man whose advertisement for a "personal novel writing teacher" had been passed on to me by a friend. I wasn't sure what he wanted or expected.

We only talked a for a minute or two before I asked, "What are the last five or six books you've really enjoyed reading?"

"Oh," he said, "I don't read."

I heard the first timber crack and looked for daylight. "So why do you want to write a novel?"

"I want to get rich."

I ended the interview. I'm proud of myself for not telling him where he could put his misperception.

Most writers who teach have variations on this story, and we all wonder how you can possibly want to write when you don't enjoy reading. That's like a guy who can't stand heights wanting to skydive. Colorblind artists don't get far, either. Or tone-deaf musicians.

I taught English for years, and I still believe you can teach someone to write exposition (essays, research papers, most of the conventional school assignments) reasonably well, but the best students have an innate talent and hunger that carry them beyond the rest. It includes an ear for language that you only develop by reading a lot and starting young.

 Let's face it, writing is hard work, much too hard for anyone who doesn't love words and the way they sound when they dance together. My family included teachers, actors, and journalists, and they all read to me and my sister from the time we could sit upright. We both love to read and we both write a lot.

People who don't read have no frame of reference. If they read, you can use various books, characters, or scenes as examples. You can cite Wuthering Heights, Catcher in the Rye or Gone Girl for an unreliable narrator. You can point to Dickens or Hawthorne for description. But if the student doesn't read, you spend more time reinventing the wheel than you do teaching him to drive. My school called the class "Composition AND literature" because they go together.

If you really want to write, read everything. Read novels, both literary and genre. Read history, science, philosophy, psychology, mythology, religion, economics and essays. Read the King James Bible, too. It doesn't matter if you're Christian or not, listen to those rhythms. Read poetry (preferably older verse with a rhyme scheme) and drama aloud. Read comic books (OK, "graphic novels"), cereal boxes and shopping lists. But stay the hell off Twitter. 140 characters is not language, it's code.

What writer(s) show you how to create rich, three-dimensional characters? Copy them. Who writes terrific dialogue? Steal the techniques. Who writes magnificent description, creates vibrant settings, and immerses you in tone and atmosphere? Figure out how she does it and use the same strategies. Then read your work out loud while walking around the room. Does it make you feel the way you want your readers to feel? If it doesn't, fix it.

Writing has to capture the human experience, and that's the whole point of language. We are (or not) because we read (or not). If you want to write, you can take classes too, but you'll learn more from the authors who speak to you.

Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, said that style depends on two factors: the ability to feel, and the vocabulary to express those feelings. You find the techniques by reading, and they enhance your empathy and humanity...maybe. The only book I know worth mentioning for writing style (except Strunk and White, which is better for exposition than for narrative) is Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax. If you haven't read it, pick up a copy.

Then get back to reading for joy.

Now, what's on your coffee table or nightstand?


  1. Steve, it always amazes me when people who want to write (or do write) don't read. And it usually shows in their work.

  2. A fine piece.
    I think the one commonality among writers is that they are all voracious readers. Books, it turns out, are made in large part from other books.

  3. Paul, I agree on both counts. What amazes me even more than the style of the non-reader's book is that he or she actually wrote one.

    And Janice, yes. I've read since I was three or four, and one of my biggest challenges as a teacher was trying to comprehend how a non-reader sees or perceives the world and how he or she processed information.

  4. I love the line from Sinclair Lewis. Thanks.

  5. Rob, I remember the Lewis line from when I used to teach (I assigned both Babbitt and Arrowsmith at one time or another), but not in at least 20 years, and my notes are, of course, long gone. I went through Bartlett's and a couple of other quotation books and even checked online, but can't find the exact quotation and don't remember where it came from.

  6. Steve, I blame me on not becoming an electronics engineer like my dad due to my reading Scaramouche, The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, etc. under the desk in 5th Grade math class instead of paying attention to numbers. After the excitement in those books, I would have probably been bored with that job anyway.

  7. Read. Read. Read. I go from one book to another. Just finished a Jacques Futrelle mystery, THE DIAMOND MASTER. He's the mystery writer who went down with TITANIC in 1912. Started up a Greg Iles book, BLACK CROSS. You are right, "Writing has to capture the human experience." Live it or read about it. Good fiction takes you there. Most of us have been to Treasure Island.

  8. I would add to your blog post & all the comments above that it also helps to really listen to people talking, especially little children, who don't have the vocabulary to say much but still manage to get their point across. My daughter when she was one year old let me know that "Cool people are cool!"

  9. Agreed. I read constantly: lots of mystery but also biography, history, poetry. Currently I'm listening to REBECCA during my commute and reading reading BIRTHDAY PARTY by C.H.B. Kitchin, which I had read about in Martin Edward's STORY OF CLASSIC CRIMES IN 100 BOOKS (which I need to get back to after I finish BIRTHDAY PARTY.) Highly recommend BIRTHDAY PARTY, BTW.

  10. Each term, I run a survey in my Crafting a Novel class: How many books did you read last year? It's anonymous, so nobody need feel embarrassed. This year, I got a high of 60, and a low of 0-1 (he can't remember if he read one book??) Average was 12.
    Yes, I'm amazed that people who rarely read a book would even think to write one. I've been told by one that "nobody has written a good book since Dickens - so that's why I don't read." (Which begs the question: how would you KNOW?)
    Ah, money. Better to buy lottery tickets.

  11. Melodie, I'd add the otherwise intelligent person who said she didn't believe in fiction– it was all made up and a waste of time.

    Steve, even as a student I saw something was very wrong with people in a writing class who didn't like to read. Worse was the guy who chose science fiction as his genre. When asked why, he said he despised sci-fi but chose it because it was easy, all monsters and stuff.

    Only a few weeks ago a woman angrily said she hated it when people 'patronized' her by saying if she didn't like to read, she'd never make a good writer. She said she'd succeeded at many things she hated, and writing would be just one more. It's like factory work or baling hay or cleaning houses, right? Aargh.

  12. There's a Dilbert cartoon in which the pointy-haired boss says, "I start with the assumption that anything I don't understand is easy to do."

  13. Good column, Steve. I have to ask about that picture of Obama. Do you know where it was taken? There probably are a lot of bookstores that look similar, but that photo looks like it was taken at a bookstore I've been to a number of times: One More Page in Arlington, VA. I know Obama has shopped there, but I didn't know he read to children there (assuming he did).

  14. Barb, I'm not sure where the picture was taken. I was going to use another of an African-American man reading to his daughter on a laptop, but I thought the Obama picture with the books in the background and a group of children made an even stronger statement. I found it in one of the image sources, and don't remember which one...

    And Leigh, the woman who hates so many things sounds like a great potential character for a story, doesn't she? Maybe a science fiction story with those monsters and stuff?


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