steal this blog entry

Most aspiring writers* don’t read nearly enough — go into any creative writing class, divide the group into ‘obsessive readers’ and ‘everybody else’ and bet money that the one or two serious contenders for future meaningful publication will be in the first group (which is also likely to be very small). I’m sure there are exceptions in some way — there are always exceptions, which is what keeps life interesting and some of us humble — but generally reading is what reveals and exposes you as a budding young writer in the first place. Reading is the inhale, writing is the exhale.

And there seems to be this perception out there that the reason why you need to read is “for ideas”. I was struck by a post over at the main message boards on Zoetrope (I’m paraphrasing): “Writers won’t tell you go to the grocery store and listen to the conversations there. They’ll tell you to read more, so you can figure out what ideas work and figure out how to steal them.”

You don’t need to read fiction for ideas (and if you are looking for ideas, it’s probably better to read nonfiction). You get ideas just from walking through a day in the culture. You don’t need to go anywhere in order to “listen to dialogue”; dialogue happens all around you, and in any case, narrative dialogue is very different from real-life dialogue, which meanders around and takes forever to get to the point and is boring, and is also only a small part of what the people involved are truly communicating (since most communication is actually nonverbal, expresses itself through body language, tone, subtext, context, etc). Dialogue in fiction and movies must appear to be natural and authentic — must ‘ring true’ , which is why you do need to listen to the people around you– while actually being a highly stylized and artificial construct that serves several purposes.

When you read a lot, you learn this, and you learn how to do this.

Among many other things.

You read not for ideas but to absorb examples of craft and technique. The more you read, the more examples and different narrative voices you absorb, the more they merge and build inside you, until, with practice, you synthesize some or all of them with your own personality and life experiences and worldview which results in your own unique voice and your own masterly way of handling a narrative.

You can’t absorb them any other way except through reading. How-to books are great — I’ve been addicted to them for years, rarely get anything of real value out of them anymore because I’ve read so many, yet still go over to that section of the bookstore for anything new: my ‘writer’s porn’– because they will identify and explain those techniques you’ve already sensed through your reading. Kind of like when a nature guide takes you through a forest and puts names to the birds and animals and trees. You’ve been walking through that same forest all your life — those birds and trees already live inside your memory, you have this deep, felt experience of the forest, a sensual appreciation of it — but now your knowledge becomes fine-tuned and better articulated, so that it’s not like learning something ‘new’ so much as having a lightbulb of recognition flare up in your mind: So that’s how it works, what is is. Of course!

I’m always puzzled by people who try to refute the whole ‘need to read” thing by saying, basically, “Well, I have a very busy life and I don’t have time to read. I need the time to write.** So this rule just doesn’t work for me.” Which reminds me of a conversation I had with a woman who wanted to be a filmmaker but was too impatient to hunt for a truly good script. “I want to make something now,” she told me. “So what am I supposed to do, sit on my ass and do nothing while I wait for a good script?”***

I don’t know what you’re supposed to do; and the world in general doesn’t care. Whether or not it “works for you” or makes you happy isn’t the point. And it isn’t a ‘rule’ anymore than ‘when you’re hungry, you need to eat’ is a ‘rule’; it’s an observation, a fact of nature, and you can buck against it if you want but the consequences aren’t likely to make you happy either.

Ideas are easy and commonplace and rarely original.

Good storytelling isn’t.

* This is just as true for budding screenwriters, who often think it’s enough just to watch a lot of movies. They need to read a lot of screenplays — but they also need to read a lot of everything else.

**An agent on a panel once stressed the need for reading to the panel’s huge, attentive audience: “Read. Read all you can. Take the time you’ve scheduled for writing and spend half of it reading.”

***I knew a production company that did exactly that. They raised millions of dollars from the dot.com world, rented office space in Santa Monica, then took meetings and read screenplays for two years until they found one good enough for them to fight to make. The screenplay was Jason Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking.

It worked out well for them.

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