Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Readers make the best writers

She asked: How did you learn to write?

The simple answer was "In school, just like everyone else" but the simple answer is seldom true even when it is factual. Yes, I learned to write in school. But the real question I think this student wanted to ask was "How did you learn to be a writer?"

And between writing and being a writer is a difference with a definite distinction.

I didn't say "In school", what I said was "By reading a lot of terrible books."

I don't think she believed me, but it's true.

I think all writers learn essentially the same way; not by diagramming sentences, but by reading them. Want to be a writer? Read vigorously and voluminously. Read everything you can get your hands on.

We learn to write by reading what others have written. We see what others did and imitating the ones we like and not the ones we hate. Slowly and by fits and starts we discover how to make dialogue sound like speech. And most importantly, we learn how to make decisions by making guesses about what will happen next and getting as excited by being wrong as we are when we're right. Because if we are wrong about the outcome of the story, that means we've come up with a new story, an alternative decision.

My dad called that daydreaming, but in reality it's the first steps of storytelling.

Sure, Scott, but you said "Reading lots of terrible books."

Bad books are in many ways more informative than the good ones. I learned plenty reading books I loved and cherished. My shelves are full of those books, but the ones I learned the most from are the ones I didn't buy or got rid of as quickly as possible. In many ways, I learned to write by reading books I hated and then making a point of not doing what those authors did.

Want to be a writer? Read. You want to try to recognize what the writer is doing, but before you do that, you have to read. Good books, bad books, fiction and non-fiction, blogs, newspapers, magazines, and comic books. In libraries and classrooms and secret reading nooks, under trees by the light of the sun and under the covers by the light of Mag. If it makes you want to throw it across the room in anger or frustration, fine.

But then go pick it up and try to figure out what it is that made you turn a book into a missile. Because that... that is a writer's homework in the only education we get. And a writer, as I always say, is someone who volunteered to keep doing homework everyday for the rest of our lives.

There aren't many rules to writing; don't let English teachers tell you different. But there's one that I abide by without fail: don't write them unless you read them.