You need to read a lot if you want to be a writer.
It’s advice repeated so often it’s practically a cliché now.
I used to read a lot. When I was a kid and summer rolled around, while my classmates dreamed of swimming or little league, I’d create little hideaways in the shade to hunker down and do nothing but read. I had a math teacher throw an eraser at me because I was reading during class in junior high. I have been known to read while walking.
Somewhere, I don’t know where, exactly, I sort of fell off the wagon. By the time I started writing seriously, I was doing very little reading. It was like my tank was full. I was done consuming, and now was the time to produce. I would go through spurts now and again…a stack of Harlen Coben’s Myron Bolitar novels in a month, for instance. Or the first three Game of Thrones novels and then pretty much nothing for almost a year.
I’ve gotten better about reading the past few years. Just keeping up with the anthologies I was in or the books of friends of mine kept me on my toes. And getting a small e-reader so I could read on the bus made a lot of difference. But I didn’t feel the connection between reading/writing in anything more than the osmosis kind of way. For instance, I can trace the bloodline for my pacing and dialogue to specific authors. My use of humor that is such an intrinsic part of my voice? Yeah, that didn’t just grow on trees. That was informed by all the people who I read that rubbed off on me.
But at the same time, that was passive learning.
Ira Glass has a famous quote (which is beautifully captured in a moving typography format here) about “the gap.” In short, that creative eventually reach a point where there is a gap between the quality of work they’re producing and the quality of work they want to be doing. It’s a frustrating place. For some it’s a jumping-off point.
I’ve been doing the writing thing for a while. I don’t suck at it. If I did, I never would have sold a story. Hell. I’d go so far as to say that a fair chunk of my stuff is actually pretty good. And reading helps better illustrate that gap between what I’m doing and what I’m capable of doing.
For the first time in I don’t know how long, I’m finding myself energized by my reading material. I’ve been driven to dig in and look deeper to figure out how, using the same tools–words–someone else can have such an amazing impact. Reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation I’m stunned how he can create such a freight train of hallucination and mystery. It’s inspiring. And I’m finally reading Tim Powers’ (a long-time favorite of mine) novel Three Days to Never, which turns on a pin, creating such amazing tension in an instant. I almost want to dissect them, go in with highlighter and sticky-notes, divine their magic.
Great writing has power to stick with you long after the book is closed. Great writing haunts your dreams.
And now I have a clearer idea than ever of where I need to be, and what it will look like when I get there.
That’s okay. I’m young. I turn 45 tomorrow. Still plenty of time if I knuckle down.
My best work is somewhere out there. Somewhere ahead of me.
Maybe this is the year I get closer to finding it.