My dear writers,
As one who is off and away with far less free time than she used to have, I must inform you of something:
Writing what you know is significantly less important than reading what you write.
Nonsense? Incomprehensible? I think not.
I've gone through the years reading voraciously, and it never quite registered until recently that it was really and truly helping my writing. I realized it in a conversation I had with a friend during one of our near-daily late-night food runs (because we are writers and therefore crepuscular creatures).
"You know... I haven't read a book in so long. The last book I read for pleasure was in January," she said.
"Jeeze. I'm doing a little bit better, but I used to go through at least a book a week and now I'm lucky if I get one a month—outside of Books, I mean."
We sat there for a minute and pondered our sudden reading demise.
"I hate to say it, but I'm almost glad that class is over," I said. "I had so much trouble turning things in for workshop because I didn't like them... I know I don't think too highly of a lot of the other people in the class, but I feel like my writing's slipping. I don't know if it's because of them, though..."
"When was the last time you finished a book outside of class?"
"Couple days ago, but I spent a couple months reading it."
She waited while I put two and two together.
"I think this whole not-reading thing is really detrimental to my writing."
"I know! And you know, a lot of the people in the class, they don't read much if they read at all!"
We went on to discuss the pros and cons of the various writers in the class, but that's a very clear digression from my point.
The class entitled Books That Make You Want To Write Re-Reloaded: Tokyo Drift, Die Hard With A Vengeance (here abbreviated as Books) was the equivalent to my ideal class and embodies the point I'm attempting to make in a more academic fashion. The idea behind it is that we will read books, one a week, that make us want to write and then discuss them and try to analyze why, exactly, they draw out our muse. This semester we used a point-value system to determine which of five elements of fiction the author was banking on to get us to read the book—character, conflict, plot, dialogue, and setting.
The key behind this class is that no book was designated as being awful; the "good books" were subjective and the "bad books" were just as subjective. Yes, reading Bridges of Madison County was met with a good deal of derision, but even books like Marguerite Dumas' The Lover were literary but didn't necessarily lead to good discussion. Literary books, good books, mediocre books, and downright awful books that had no right being published ought to be read to expand the facility of writing. Genre fiction can be just as highbrow as Dickens when it's being read as an example of writing that one wants to achieve.
Frequency and variety are good things to have. Proper grammar, formatting—both of which are handy so that any critiquers of your work aren't compelled to gouge their eyes out at first glance—and linguistic fluidity are all attained, all of which lead to a better storytelling experience.
If you are floundering in a sea of literature, the book list for Books of Spring 2009 follows:
The Lover, Marguerite Dumas
The Fur Hat, Vladimir Voinovich
The Box Man, Kobo Abe
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
The Hanged Man, Francesca Lia Block
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
Jesus Saves, Darcy Steinke
The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller
Home Land, Sam Lipsyte
Feast of Snakes, Harry Crews
Read, my pretties, read!