Read. Read everything.
One of my pet peeves as a bookseller and a writer is the “I don’t-” reader. Readers who won’t read YA. Readers who won’t read sci-fi. Readers who won’t read manga or classics or poetry, mysteries or contemporary or women’s lit. Or the most cringeworthy…readers who won’t read certain authors based on their gender or race. (Seriously. I once had a customer tell me – Me, a woman. Me, an aspiring author. – that he flat-out didn’t read women authors because he was sure they had nothing to say that he’d find worth hearing. Yeah…)
To this last lot I say, are you kidding me?! To the rest, I say, I get it! Once upon a time I was one of you. And, sure, I absolutely have favorite genres, and less-than-favorite genres, but I’ve learned that saying you only read one type of literature (or won’t read certain types of literature) is like saying you’ll only pet brown dogs (or you’ll only pet dogs that aren’t brown). Which is like saying that ALL BROWN DOGS ARE THE SAME. Which, of course, they’re not. Case in point: St. Bernards are brown and so are a whole lot of Chihuahuas. Now, maybe you aren’t a fan of how some Chihuahuas shiver or how much St. Bernards drool, but there’s a whole range of perfectly lovely, well-suited brown dogs in between. And as with dogs, not all science-fiction/romance/mysteries fit within the same lovable, furry confines. Space Opera is a far cry from Post-apocalyptic Dystopia is a far cry from zombies-take-over-the-world-after-a-military-experiment-goes-terribly-wrong. (Though, honestly, mash them all together and I’d probably read that book.) My point is, you don’t have to like everything. But don’t not read something simply because it looks like it might fit inside a certain kind of box.
The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.
― Alan Bennett
The best books share one feature, and it sure isn’t something as narrow as where it’s filed on the shelf. It’s the nearly indefinable quality of interconnectedness, a true moment of understanding and of being understood. It’s the sense that regardless of when or where or by whom the book was written, something in it speaks to you, you the individual, just as it has spoken to others known or unknown to you in the past and will speak to more in the future. Because that is one of the remarkable things about humans: We’re both separate and entire. Individuals, alone and private, and a collective. Art reminds us of this. And a story can be both a balm, proof that someone somewhere at some point has felt what you feel, or an entreaty. A request for you, the reader, to be the one who feels what the writer felt.
Genre is just packaging. Real characters or imaginary, in our world, our present, in past moments or fictional landscapes, humanity is the core. On Tralfamadore or in 16th century England, in the midst of a foreign war or walking the halls of a high school that looks just like yours; all stories are about us. About people, the things we’ve felt or will feel. The things we’ve done or will do. Refuse to read a story based solely on its color or shape and you risk denying yourself access to whole swaths of experience.
Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.
― William Faulkner
Now for the writing part of it, also known as What He Said.
Read. Seriously. You want to write something? Read a WHOLE lot of stuff first, during, after, and so on. Read for inspiration. Read for respite. Read for help. It is my firm belief that you cannot be a writer without being a reader first. I know that sounds obvious, like simple commonsense. And I hope it is. But, don’t just read what you write. Read all of it. Read nonfiction and fiction. Read history and politics, fantasy and poetry, bestsellers and the random favorites of your friends and local bookseller (wink, wink). Treat reading like exercise, like practice. Read to learn what to do and what NOT to do. Read for research, for companionship, for fun.
Like Faulkner said, you absorb it. Bits and pieces, feelings and facts; they stick with you, accumulating into new ideas and different ways of expressing old ones. I’ve never been to war. I’ve never lived in abject poverty or extreme opulence, have never traveled through space or woken up in a new world. But, through reading, I can imagine it. I can tread through someone else’s experience, someone else’s imagination, and feel it as though it were my own. Through reading, I’m not confined to writing only about what I know, but to what I can learn.
Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.
― Joyce Carol Oates
…so read. Read everything.