Writing is hard work. It eats up your time and your energy. It demands your attention at inconvenient moments– times when you should be sleeping, or working, or walking along a beach with your lover. Writing leaves you exhausted, and yet exhilarated; drained and yet bubbling with fresh ideas; thrilled to write THE END yet impatient to start on the next story.
Writing is a hungry, demanding companion. And it must be fed. What should one feed it? Books. Books and magazines and newspapers and more books. Your writing muse is hungry for words, or should be. A productive, prolific and generous muse has an insatiable desire for words; words printed in books, on cereal packets, even on bus tickets. Feed your muse, regularly and well. Treat her as well as you would like to be treated – that is, good food, plenty of it, with the occasional rich fare. Your willingness to feed your muse will pay off in your own writing. Your ideas will bubble freely, elegant sentences will unroll readily, and plots will weave around your irresistible characters. And all this will grow out of your reading.
Students have asked me if reading affects their writing. I tell them ‘Of course it will affect your writing! In the best possible way. It will enrich and enliven every mark you make on paper, it is an essential foundation for excellence in writing, of any genre.’
Can you imagine a musician who refused to listen to music, a dancer who never watched dancing, an athlete who never saw a competition? Of course not, it is unimaginable. Thinking you must draw everything from your inner self is false thinking. Your entire life is a culmination of many generations of lives before you. Your experiences, your culture, your environment reflect, like myriad mirrors, flashes of those influences. Reading acknowledges this, and will help you become the writer you can be.
So, yes, read. Read greedily; read books you love, and books others recommend. Read fiction, non-fiction, poetry and political comment. Keep a notebook handy, and jot down words and phrases that appeal to you. Copy out marvellous first sentences. Here is one I copied years ago:
She thought it was a mouse at first, and wasn’t bothered.
Isn’t that a great opening line? Train yourself to notice great writing, then jot down reminders. You may never use it directly, but like a dancer practising steps, it all adds to your grace and ease.
Here are a few more of my own. Feel free to steal or adapt them them:
The second thing Cherie noticed about James was his gold wedding band.
The huon pine had overhung the harbour for generations of his people.
The dogs were the first to greet us, howling a welcome in the glittering frost.
I am nobody you know.
Feed your muse, treat her well, and allow her to feed you all the wisdom of accumulated generations of writers, through your reading.