You Need to Read

The semester begins and with it I meet a new crop of creative writing students. The ongoing debate over whether creative writing can be taught is far from being resolved. I approach it in the same way that I think of sports talent. There will be people who will just never be able to grasp it, no matter how much work they put in. And then there are the Jameses, Bryants, and Durants whose skills seem innate, who would have been great through sheer talent and then took the time to hone their abilities. Both sets of people fall on the edges of the bell curve. The middle of the curve allows for people of varying skill and talent abilities, and within that middle, there is always room for improvement and development. And in the same way that one’s development in basketball relies on being on the court, so too does an aspiring writer’s development rely on spending time with the written word. 

Reading for me began as a way to wrap my head around the world. I was an alien after all. In the legal immigration sense anyway. And I was shy. So as a kid it became my bridge to social interaction. It also became my major source of entertainment, next to my ratty VCR and my good old Nintendo. In college I began reading differently though, becoming more sensitive to words, to how stories came together, and this led to my own development in writing.

It’s at this point that I must lament my lack of time for reading at present. It is a common issue. As you get older and your career gets more demanding, you find less time to do things just for leisure. I have lots of time to read, but these things often have to do with work. Lucky me that at least a lot of these are readings for class, but still. I remember as an undergrad, when I could write a whole short story in a night, I dreamed of when I would be a graduate and would have the time to finally focus on writing. That didn’t happen. Anyways, back to the importance of reading.

I stress to students that one’s development as a writer begins with a sensitivity first to words, and how these words are used. I love wordplay, I love cracking jokes and callbacks and doing whatever I can with words. I developed a weird habit when I was in grade school, which I haven’t really told people about (until this writing), but in idle moments I take recent words that I’ve heard and then I pronounce them backwards, flip them around, spell them, then make anagrams. Then I’ll take one or two words and start flipping them and making anagrams with them. And so on until my something draws my attention. It’s sometimes why I’ll be staring blankly, my lips moving, kind of zoned out. It’s just that I am truly enamored of words. (DREAM OF WONDERS).

Moving from a love of words one gets to a love of sentences and paragraphs and stories and how writers let words drop onto the page, or how writers string together plots, or all of these other different elements that go into great writing. From the wonderful, quirky The Monster at the End of this Book which I read over and over as a kid (come on, tension, character, escalation, it’s all there!), to the comics of the mid-90s, to the information on basketball cards that I memorized,  to the stories of Ray Bradbury which I kept going back to, to an adolescent obsession with Tom Clancy thrillers (to which I owe my love for plot and action, as well as Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six and GRAW),  to the more “literary” reading tastes that I would develop, I found that there was always something to learn through the reading, whether it was content or form, and often both.

I tell my students, this is the equivalent of reverse engineering. We examine stories, look at the components, see how they come together, how they work. And then we attempt to take this knowledge, attempt to use these techniques that we have observed, and apply them to our own writing.

Now here’s the thing that gets me. I have had students who stumble into the classroom and say they don’t like reading, or that they haven’t really read anything except their textbooks, but they think that they can write a story so they’ve enrolled in creative writing. I know it probably isn’t their fault, that it’s a social thing, a systemic thing that winds up belittling writing as an art and craft. (and gosh, have I been subject to this kind of belittling thinking about writing in the many times I’ve been hired to swoop into projects which are failing because the project proponents thought they didn’t need writers.)

When you think about it, this is the equivalent of coming to a painting class and saying, “Well, I don’t really like paintings, I haven’t even looked at many, but I think I could make a good one,” or film class saying, “Haven’t seen many movies, but you know, pretty sure I could make one. Doesn’t look too hard anyway.” I’m not one here to suddenly say that amateurs have no place in attempting art (of course not, it’s where we begin, all of us anyway) but rather that it seems like it’s a lack of respect for the medium (and this lack of respect not even being a conscious thing). That or the grade school belief that we can accomplish anything we put our minds to. I think that belief only becomes actionable if we also augment the “putting our minds to” with the grinding, the working the toiling, which accompanies the belief that one can accomplish something.

The real work begins by opening up a book (or opening up the file on your reader) and getting down to it. I remember my beloved professors saying it, Read, read, and then when you think you’ve read a lot, read some more. Similar to philosophy, where the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know, so too with reading. The more you read, the more you realize that there is still so much more out there to read. And there’s always more. With almost every book I pick up, I learn something, get a new idea, and in the best of moments, get inspired to write something new, something different. or at the least something more.

And so I have my reading list. Along with it come hopes that this reading list isn’t treated as all that’s needed, but rather it serves as a preliminary introduction. It is what I want them to read for discussions in the classroom, but that their own reading will go far beyond those stories and essays that I have assigned. These serve, hopefully, as the gateway drugs to a wonderful, lifelong addiction to the pleasure of reading.

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3 Responses to You Need to Read

  1. sillysili says:

    There are certain students who, I think, are just way too proud to open a book and read. I remember one time when I recommended a lot of good books to a “young poet.” I said he could borrow some of them. His reply: “no, thanks.”

    He would still keep on writing bad poetry and would ask us to critique his works which were all riddled with clichés.

    • Joe Pineda says:

      I know the type. Most of the time, rather than being stubborn or self-centered, they are afraid that they might compromise their writing’s vision if they let themselves be influenced by the work of other authors. They don’t understand that they can only improve after reading a good book; sadly, they have to come to that conclusion on their own.

  2. matabangpusa says:

    I think part of the problem (which Jay captures beautifully in his comment) is the obsession with the whole \”naturally gifted\” thing. Nobody wants the hard work that comes with learning creative writing; few have the guts to look at their own work and say, \”I need to improve\”…and to realize that this whole \”I need to improve\” thing is for life, when you\’ve committed to creative writing. Love the piece, Carljoe, especially I stress to students that one’s development as a writer begins with a sensitivity first to words, and how these words are used.\” Balance it with a sense of humor, an awareness of what else is out there–and you still don\’t have a formula for success. Writing is a long, hard slog with occasional \”WTF I am good!\” moments–and a lot of \”WTF was I thinking\” moments. Once those students realize this–then perhaps they\’re on their way

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