Saturday, August 21, 2010

Reading as Writers

Reading came to me much later, I think, than it should have. When I order the events of my early life, it's odd because I was writing long before I was reading. Even now, that makes no sense.
During the war and especially the long months of the occupation, I was lead to books by some of my buddies. This was 1990 and 1991 and the world for the most part was still analog. Thank goodness. Knowing who I was then, I can't imagine who I would have become should there have been other distractions and diversions than books.
So there you have it, I was an 18 year old Desert Storm soldier when I read my first books.
The first book? John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. I read for hours a day and Steinbeck's thin volume took me weeks to read. After completing the book, I remember feeling a tremendous sense of accomplishment and a real sense of Doc and Mac and the Boys and Dora and the Girls and Lee Chong. I felt like I knew these characters. Who knows? Maybe when I consider where I was and what I was doing at that time, Steinbeck's cast of characters were every bit as real as my life.
After Cannery Row, more Steinbeck followed: Cup of Gold, The Pastures of Heaven, The Grapes of Wrath to remember a few. In the course of 1991, my departure from the war and my return to Germany, I began to read everyday. When I traveled through Europe, I did so with a pen, a small notebook, a toothbrush and a paperback. Now that's traveling light, isn't it?
I wrote mostly character sketches in those days. I spent some time puzzling out how to write poetry. I wrote strange situational vignettes. In short, I spent those early days writing down combinations of words and sentences.
A change was filtering in, and I didn't know it. As I traveled around Europe and most specifically Germany, I started writing everyday. As I was doing these two activities, reading and writing, my habits and my style changed. I began to ape John Steinbeck in my stories, and in my word choices. I was a young man then and a young writer. Sure, I had plenty of life experiences, and those are great resources, but I had no experience with the written word.
Over the next few years, and especially after I got home and started college, I never missed an opportunity to talk books with anyone. The recommendations lead me to Mark Twain, E.M. Forester and James M. Cain, to name a few I who I remember. I got in the habit of reading several books by each author in quick order. I began to read faster and comprehend more. I would think that's the truth with just about everything-practice and improve. During each stint with each writer, some language or style crept into my own work. I don't think it was a straight imitation as I had a few years prior with Steinbeck, but it was now noticeable to me. Read and write, read and write, read and write. Seems easy enough. I believe a voracious reader would probably make a good writer. Conversely, a good writer is a voracious reader.
As writers we must read. As we read, we must see the story for what it is: a careful construction of the fiction elements of plot, character development and language. Then, we must deconstruct it, reduce it all down to those elements. We know how the plot moves forward, we know how the characters construct their conflicts and how they resolve them. We must take note and analyze the language. We must do all of these things to gain a better understanding of how that writer constructed that story and how what we read will enhance our own work. Think about it like this: reading is an investment in time and professional development.
Last time, we talked about the autumn reading list. Autumn feels closer to us now here in Denver than last week, but it's not arrived just yet. I chose those books for more than just seasonal reading. I chose those books because I know a thing or two about each of them and some of them I've been meaning to read for a long time. Yet the real reason why I chose those books is because I hope to learn something from each one. I've been making a practice of choosing books with the goal of learning something for years. I think it's a good habit to get into. For anyone who hasn't had this thought before, remember all the reading lists we had in school. They were all designed to teach us something, whether or not we chose to read them or learn anything. Also, two things I do: first, I choose books that are difficult to read but not difficult to understand. Second, I read books people I respect are reading. Recommendations can go a long way.
To belabor the point of reading one moment longer, the launch of Umbrella Factory Magazine has brought me more reading than I'd care to admit. As I read all sorts of fiction submissions, I can tell many things about the writer. I can tell if the writer is a reader, if you can believe that.

As autumn comes to these northern climes, I hope the autumn reading lists do too. As always, keep writing and now, happy reading.

Next time: The Small Press.

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