Friday, June 29, 2012

What Are You Reading?

by Matt Sinclair

“What are you reading?”

It’s a question I ask people all the time—and not always when they have a book or e-reader in front of them. I haven’t conducted a doctoral study on the subject, but I believe that intelligent people read regularly. I’m aware, however, that there’s a dangerous tautology involved in that statement. Does it imply that people who don’t read regularly are not intelligent? No, though some might infer it, regardless.

But when I ask the question of a writer, every once in a while I receive a shocking answer. “I’m not reading anything right now. I’m writing. I don’t want anything to influence my story.”

I worry about such writers. They don’t seem to realize where the muse comes from and how she must be fed. A well-nourished muse inspires thoughts and dreams that might smack of something familiar but are also spiced up with an innovation that you can claim to be your own. Go ahead, take a shoulder ride like you did when you were little. It really helps you gain a new perspective.

Now, if the reason you’re not reading is because you’re writing and you simply have no other time to read, well, I get it. Trust me, as the father of twin three-year-olds, I totally get it. But I think it’s important to try to get your reading in, too.

I suppose it’s hard to call it “reading for pleasure.” People like us understand how and why stories are structured in a certain way. We see the seams more easily than other readers or recognize symbols and metaphors that border on the cliché that other readers think of as oh so clever. But we must strive to never lose our ability to enjoy the pure thrill of new writing that causes us to think new thoughts. Even when we’re writing.

You’re entitled to disagree. But from what I’ve seen, successful writers tend to be voracious, omnivorous readers, making some of the most obscure tomes dog-eared from repeated page-turning.

Over the past several years, I’ve noticed established authors include lists of what they were reading while writing the novel I was holding in my somewhat ink-stained hands. While I suspect such things are inspired by lawyers or marketing departments (or both) to cover fannies and assuage readers’ varied interests, the sheer volume of books, published and unpublished, that some of these authors consume while writing their own should be enough to quell the fears of unpublished writers and enable them to enjoy their teetering piles of “to be read” books at bedside.

What’s behind that fear? I can’t say for sure, but I think part of it is the idea that somehow a basic premise of a popular contemporary work will overwhelm their own story. Still, I suspect J.K. Rowling was familiar with Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings trilogy before she conjured up Harry Potter. For all I know, she might even have re-watched or reread them. But then again, she didn’t really have to. The similar tales of an unexpected hero, guided in part by a magical, mystical mentor are rooted in story archetype.

As most writers know, at their root modern stories are retellings of ancient tales: a quest, love lost and found, youth coming of age, an unlikely hero overcoming the seemingly invincible, a mixture involving several or even all of these elements.

And you think that you’re going to be swayed in your story because you read within the same genre at that time? You believe that people will see the magic sneakers your character wears or enchanted guitar he plays will be recognized as just another ring of power or light saber or cloak of invisibility? Suit yourself. Personally, I think my imagination can only benefit from frequent exercise.

Keep reading my friends. Your muse will be glad you did.

Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, recently published a short story anthology called Spring Fevers, which is available through Smashwords, Amazon, and in print via CreateSpace. It includes stories by fellow FTWA writers, including Cat Woods, J. Lea Lopez, Mindy McGinnis, and R.S. Mellette. He also blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68.


Sophie Perinot said...

I read when I am editing. I read when I am waiting for comments from critique partners or my agent or my editor. But I do NOT EVER read while I am composing—that is writing. Not in the evenings. Not on weekends. Not even to pass the inordinate amount of time I spend sitting in carpool lines.

The reason is simple—I am a sponge for voice. This is true in non-writerly facets of my life (I once picked up a Mississippi accent when rooming for a week with a delegate from that state). And it is VERY true as a writer. Once I’ve found the correct voice and rhythm for a wip I do nothing that might cause me to lose it or—worse still—pick up the voice of another author. So rather than feeding my muse, reading the work of others merely prostitutes her.

Jemi Fraser said...

I don't think I could go more than a day or 2 without reading at least a little bit. I read before bed every night. I totally agree with you that it keeps me inspired, keeps me grounded and teaches me something with every book I read. I understand Sophie's point and I've heard several authors say the same, but it doesn't seem to work that way for me. And I'm so glad! :)

Matt Sinclair said...

I'm the same way, Jemi. And, Sophie, that's an intereseting point. Voice acquisition happens to me in real life, too, and it's possible that it could happen to me in my writing. I've not noticed it, but it's a great comment that is making me think.

E.B. Black said...

I don't know how a writer could get away with NOT reading. Take away all the reading for pleasure I do and I still have beta readers that I read entire novels of all the time.