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To Read or Not to Read…

‘Which should I do? Read, or write?… There’s not much of a record, in the memoirs of writers, about the tension I have just described, the silent competition between reading and writing. I don’t know if many writers feel it. I do know some writers seem to resent reading, to resent literature even – as if it were unfair competition.’
So says Larry McMurtry in [1] He describes something that I think many writers feel, but hate to admit. They know they ought to be reading; all the best advice is for new writers, in particular, to read as widely as possible. And yet it can also feel like a displacement activity (and most of us have quite enough of those).
Depending on your frame of mind, reading can also be discouraging. There are days when it feels as if every other writer is better than you. There are days, conversely, when it feels as if many poorer writers have somehow landed more lucrative publishing deals. On days like these it is probably better to put the book down and go for a walk.
Yet writers who tale their craft seriously need to read. A lot. It feels almost too obvious to state.
Student writers sometimes get slightly affronted by the suggestion that they should be reading the works of others. They don’t have time, they argue. Or they’re concerned that they will be unable to think original thoughts, if their mind is full of someone else’s exemplary words.
Certainly, time can feel very scarce, when you are meeting the demands of assignments and coursework. One new student asked me why the OCA does not have reading weeks, as a traditional university might. The answer, of course, is because the courses are not structured in the same way and a student can allot themselves a reading week (or two) whenever they wish.

There may well be a case, however, for suggesting that a certain amount of reading is done before plunging into the course materials and starting to fret about hand-ins and deadlines.
As for that fear of other writers’ work invading your brain, I think we all have to relax about this. Seeing how others tackle the writing issues we all face is often instructive – as is seeing how not to do it. We are unlikely to inadvertently reproduce someone else’s ideas or phrases. Taking time out from our own writing will usually mean we return to it reinvigorated and newly inspired. I promise!
I’m going to end with the advice of Stephen King, who was unequivocal about the matter. ‘The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with our pen or word processor.’[2]
Is reading a necessity for writers – or a hindrance? What’s your experience?
[1] Larry McMurtry (1999), Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond. USA & Canada: Simon and Schuster [This edition 2001].
[2] Stephen King  (2000) , On Writing [My edition] Great Britain: Hodder and Stoughton Pg.171.
Featured Image: Jane Horton

Posted by author: Barbara Henderson
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2 thoughts on “To Read or Not to Read…

  • This is a real dilemma. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. I really like the idea of a ‘reading week’ and I shall pencil one in right now. There is a big temptation to feel that a day without writing is a day wasted and reading gets neglected. Before I started the course I had no time for short stories, but fitting one in a day is manageable and I feel that I’ve achieved something. I’ve also become a big fan. I try and read the Booker short list (one so far), and am hoping that this year’s winner will be more readable than last’s!

  • As a writer, I certainly can’t do without reading. And as a reader, I can’t do without writing.
    I reckon there is no such thing as pure reading, not anyway if you are a writer. When you have a text in front of you, and you start reading, you are in a sense re-writing the text as well, in much the same way that an actor re-enacts the text of a play.
    My advice to students is always to read as much as possible and as widely as possible, fiction, short fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction. Just to help others along, here is what I’ve read in the last four weeks:
    autobiography: This Boy by Alan Johnson
    biography: The Woman who defied Kings by Andree Aelion Brooks
    poetry and criticism: The North: poetry and reviews and articles on poetry
    fiction: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
    jounalism: The New Statesman, Guardian Weekend Review
    And in case you think I haven’t done anything else, I’ve marked two OCA assignments, written two poems as part of a sequence, attended workshops, peer-reviewed an article for Writing in Practice (Higher Education journal of NAWE), walked in the countryside, cleaned the house, done shopping, washing. Maybe I could have done some of these things without reading, but the marking, writing, reviewing and workshopping were all supported by my reading. And I reckon I have enjoyed the reading doubly because I read as a writer.

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