Why Writers Should Read

A poet friend of mine, who is very talented and skilled (those are two separate things, you know) recently posted an ‘Aside’ on her blog The 365 Poetry Project that was about how she didn’t read a lot of poetry. Some of the arguments she made were close to arguments I made about my own writing at one point of my life, so I came up with this response to her.

I’m not going to waste time talking about your writing… you already know what I like, and how much of it I like, and how I’m not afraid to tell you when I don’t think something quite works. And while I don’t think you’re quite as arrogant as you like to think you are (hmm, wonder if that’s its own special kind of arrogance) I do think you have at least the required amount of cockiness that is required to be able to think that total strangers will want to look at the stuff that comes out of your head.

I am going to address one thing in particular, though, something that you mentioned in your post and in other conversations that we’ve had. And while I’m going to keep the ‘back when I was a young writer’ talk to a minimum, I am going to say that two writing mentors I had gave me similar advice when I needed it. Both of these people… a woman who used to feature me reading at her open mics in San Francisco, and a sailor and writer I served with who was some 15 years older than me and who really pushed me from writing in a closed room to writing for the public… heard my arguments that I couldn’t or didn’t want to read a lot of other peoples’ poetry, I’ve since built on their arguments and while I don’t think I read as much as these two or some other readers do, I have managed to widen my spectrum and take in a lot more input.

Because that’s why you should read poetry. At the least, you should read writing, whether on the Internet or in the library or in your own library (or ask me nicely and I’ll lend some out to you… I have a shitload). But because you write poetry, and because you want to write poetry… especially because you want to write poetry, you should read it. Read contemporary poetry in magazines that you want to publish in. Read the classics; perhaps ask other writers which classic writers you could gain the most from reading. Read bad poetry (which you said you did) because that encourages you and makes you realise that your work isn’t all that bad. Read good poetry because that sense of having your soul peeled open and filled with the light of the universe that good poems engender will leave an even greater mark on a poet. It will give you something to strive for, to reach for. You need the bad writers to look at and think “I could do that” but you need the good perhaps even more to make you think “that’s what I want to do.”

Read poetry in the same way that you write, a certain set amount per day. I do this, and while I get criticised by other writers who say that I take the joy out of reading or some such codswallop, I have also read the better part of the Best American Poetry Series, which first came out a few years before you did… not to mention several of the epics by Keats and Browning and Wordsworth, the works of William Carlos William and Thomas Hardy. (Also the complete Remembrance of Things Past by Proust… twice… but that might be as much because I’m a masochist as well.) Currently, my bathroom book is The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin, and well, at the risk of being crude, I will point out the similarities between the time it takes to read a one- to two- page poem, and the time it takes for a good healthy crap. Poetry magazine is great for this as well.

But I read under other conditions as well… in parks, on buses, in my reading chair at home. When I get a new book of poetry, I set out to read five poems a day until it’s finished. Sometimes four, if they’re long, or six if they’re short, but never more. Poetry, if read properly, can be intense. Should be intense. And like really good food or good sex, it’s best to slow down, let your system digest it and process it, and give your brain a break. If I try and plunge straight through a book of poems, I get really tired of it after fifteen minutes or so. If I ration it, I can think about it critically, enjoy it, and take something from it as well, something I can use for my own work. When I started doing this, reading poetry as regularly as I wrote, I began finishing the masters and the contemporary writers. I also began writing better.

I haven’t yet said why you should read poetry. For this, I’m going to dip into the pool of metaphors, the pool of subconscious speech and imagery, the pool where we as writers go to pick out the phrases and images that we want to use for our writing. The actual pool itself is vast and inaccessible, seated at the top of a mountain and containing the wealth of human experience; those of us who try to climb and jump in risk insanity, death, or turning into a basket case. (Your humble corespondent may have climbed a little too close to this pool before.) Most writers and artists have little pools of their own on the slopes of this mountain, and when we are casting about for an idea to write, or we want to add to something we want to write, we reach into the pool and pull out a handful of inspiration. This is the feeling you get when your paper suddenly fills itself of its own accord, when you feel like your pen is going to ignite because you’re writing so fast, or in my case, when my Muse runs up excitedly from the pool into the basement writing studio we keep in my head and shouts “CJ! Look at this! We have to write about this! Now!”

When we first discover that we, as creators, have access to this pool, it’s easy to get lost in the joy of creation. It feel so wonderful, better than any other experiences we’ve had in our young adult lives, to pull these ideas seemingly out of nowhere and pour them on paper. But unfortunately, the water in these pools is cloudy and opaque, We can’t see the bottom until one day we reach in and scrape our knuckles on the rock.

Many writers give up at this point. It’s so easy to be locked in the moment, to think that it’s all gone, that it will never come back, that we had our time and now we just can’t write any more. The world of literature is filled with writers who wrote one or two amazing works of art… Harper Lee, Malcolm Lowry, James Agee, Margaret Mitchell, Arthur Rimbaud… and then stopped, never to write or publish again, or to die frustrated and blocked. Others start drinking or smoking or other drugs… all have the effect of zapping the brain artificially and briefly filling the pool with inspiration, but then their brains are too fried to apply craft to what they pull out.

The trick, the secret, is to walk up the mountain, or around the mountain, where the collected subconscious of Mankind runs down in rivulets, cascades, and sometimes waterfalls. Do this, carrying your cap or a bowl, and dip it in. Then go back to your own pool and empty it. Don’t carry it back to your typewriter or computer or notebook immediately; that’s a good way to write something extra-derivative. Let it mingle with your own ideas, your own subconscious. Let it form new worlds and new ideas. Then pull it out to work with it. This is essential… going to the works of others to recharge your own work. If you don’t, one day you will sit down to write and it will be as useful as trying to look out your elbow.

Of course, the main reason I read is because I love to read, and sometimes I’m pretty sure that I write in order to fuel my reading habits. The method I described up there is, I think, the best way to read poetry, especially long works of poetry. And it will add to your own repertoire. You’ll find a poet whose work speaks to you or enchants you, and a month or a year later, you’ll realise that it’s enriched your own writing. I agree with you about the frustration that can come from reading poetry sometimes, even when you like writing it. This is why I find it essential to dip into these works, not dive into them. I do the same with Victorian novels and Romantic-era writing… part of the reason is because that was how it was meant to be consumed, a couple of chapters or poems at a time every month until the serial is finished. The best wine is drunk a small glass at a time, not by the gallon.

Whatever you do, keep writing. I think reading more of the good poets will help your writing (as it helped my own) but that shouldn’t be a block to writing. You are doing some incredible work at your blog. Sometimes I think of what you were writing a year ago at this time, compare it to what you’re writing now, and I start to fantasize about what you’ll be writing in a year, or ten years. And it also makes me get off my tucchus and write more, myself.

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2 thoughts on “Why Writers Should Read”

  1. Very well said. I love to read, as well, but I also read because I have to. I’m by no means the best writer in the world, but I learned a lot of the skill I do have by reading.

    I totally get what you’re saying about recharging the batteries. Nothing makes me want to write fantasy as much as a romp through Leiber or Zelazny.

  2. I really enjoyed this, and while I do think you make some valid points, I don’t believe you have to read someone else’s work to make yours better. Maybe if you’re talking about wanting to be a good writer, technically speaking. But, if you write because it’s your only outlet, because you have no other option, because you have no better way to heal, then life will bring its own inspiration. And the words will come, sometimes pouring out, and you’ll be unable to contain them – whether they sound good or not, I have no idea – with me it just is what it is. I understand what you mean though, as far as reading for inspiration, when our thoughts run dry. If writing were my business, I’d be worried and anxious about that. But I only write to heal and to give voice to my feelings, who are left silent when not written on a page.
    I know I’m making no sense, and I probably completely contradicted myself. Excuse my babbling. I did really enjoy this though 🙂

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