Disappearing Every Time You Cross A Road

I want you to conduct a little market research for me.

I want you to ask the people you know who are writers, aspiring, published or otherwise, what they are reading right now.

How often they read.

How much.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine who teaches a creative writing course at the local university about writers and reading. She says that most of her students don’t read. They are adults who are paying fifteen thousand dollars to do a degree and they don’t read. They are too busy learning how to be writers. They are too busy writing, to read.

Something is definitely wrong with that scenario. The way I look at it is, how can you become a writer – a good writer – if you don’t read? Chick lit, poetry, speculative fiction, romance, horror, historical fiction, literary fiction, GOOD LORD even non-fiction will do. My point is you must read if you want to write.

Yet there seems to be an alarming trend developing that aspiring writers feel they don’t need to read in order to write.

It makes no sense to me. You can write as many paragraphs describing a bowl of fruit as you want but if you don’t read the way the great writers do it, you may as well not bother.

You can study the elements of writing till the cows begin to moo in the back pasture but if you don’t look at how the greats bend and flex those elements into something beautiful, you are, in my opinion, wasting your time.

There is one reason and one reason alone that I began to write.

I loved reading.

I love reading.

That’s it.

There’s no underlying, deeply profound reason about me thinking I could say something that would change the world or gain riches or fame.

I loved to read and as a result became interested in writers and writing.

I used to read well over 500 books a year.

That has slowed down now. I read on average about one hundred full length novels per year as well as plays, poetry and screenplays. I read pretty much anything that grabs my interest and  I cover a wide range of genre.

The point is, the books I read inform my writing. They are my teachers. Form, nuance, narrative, motivation, depth. I firmly believe it is true to say that you can learn a lot from books.

I have heard people talking about the trend against reading among writing students more than once. It bothers me a bit. There’s a kind of arrogance in it that is symptomatic of a wider arrogance in modern society. I don’t like arrogance. It implies intolerance and inflexibility. And a know-it-all kind of personality; and the powers that be know I hate a bloomin’ know-it-all.

Think of all the books you have read in your lifetime. What if you had never read them?

Think of the worlds they created for you. Think of what you felt while reading them. Of what you learned not just about the world but about yourself.

Have you ever read a book that may not have been your favourite book but you just can’t deny its power? Have you ever looked at the imagery in that book, the observations, and just been knocked backwards by the force of the creative punch the writer delivers?

The Catcher In the Rye is such a book for me.

Oh, here we go, you are saying.

Selma just thinks she’s so cool and literary and all that talking about J.D. Salinger.

What a friggin’ showoff.

Not at all.

I first read The Catcher In The Rye when I was 17 and hated it. Holden Caulfield was a whiny pain in the ass who completely got on my nerves. I couldn’t stand him or the novel he appeared in. Then when I read about Salinger and his eccentricities I thought: Typical. What a loon.

I didn’t pick up The Catcher In The Rye again until I was in my late twenties. I was shocked that I had so readily dismissed it. No matter what you think about that subjective, stream of consciousness style of narrative, you can’t deny how effective a technique it is in this novel.

And what an important novel it is.

Did you know that there is a whole genre of writing dedicated to books influenced by Catcher In The Rye? They include brilliant works such as The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews and a novel by one of my personal heroes, Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis.

Catcher In The Rye has also played an influence in film and other forms of popular culture.

For those of you who haven’t read it, the story is told by Holden Caulfield, a seventeen- year-old dropout who has just been kicked out of his fourth school. He is the poster boy for disaffected youth. It is about his journey to self-discovery.

As well as capturing the conflicts and crises many young adults face, Salinger also manages to present a concise piece of social criticism in an era of what Holden refers to as phoniness. Throughout, Holden dissects the phony aspects of society, and the phonies themselves. He is, in fact, dissecting the consequences of the American Dream. And the price of progress.

The themes in Catcher In The Rye are still relevant today. They will probably always be relevant. We might not call them phonies anymore but there are still plenty of people around who are not known for being genuine. The phoniness inherent in our current society forces us to not necessarily be ourselves and I know I’ve been thrown into an existential crisis because of it. More than once.

You might think that The Catcher In The Rye would be in my list of top ten books.

Au contraire.

It doesn’t even make it into my top fifty.

But I think of it every now and then and cannot deny its power.

There is one image that sticks in my mind for its awareness of insignificance and pain and vulnerability. Often, I gasp when I think of it.

It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road.

That image, which appears in the very first chapter, of feeling like he was disappearing as he crossed the road, has stayed with me for years.

It blows my mind even now.

Undeniably brilliant.

Discovering images like that are why I read so avidly in the first place.

Why I continue to read.

And why I write.

It sounds simplistic, almost trite to say this, but –

Reading, it’s important.

So, if you want to be a writer, a good writer, the best you can be; do yourself a favour and go and pick up a book.

And keep on reading.

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About Selma

Still dreaming, still hoping, still trying to pronounce incontrovertible. Writes stories the way Evel Knievel jumps canyons - without a net.
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21 Responses to Disappearing Every Time You Cross A Road

  1. Pingback: Why Writers Need To Read « Selma In The City

  2. daoine says:

    I agree Sel. But I think I know where the non-reading concept may be coming from, though. I used to read about 100 books a year, almost entirely fiction. The year I concentrated on writing my first real novel (i.e., second novel if you count the “training novel”) I decided that I would not read while I was writing after I found myself taking on Dickens’s style of writing while re-reading Oliver Twist! It was a very obvious example otherwise I might not have noticed. I decided that I needed to develop my own voice first before I could again combine my two joys of writing and reading. I lasted almost a year without reading fiction and it was really hard. It took a lot of discipline to not reach for a book, and I’m afraid I really don’t understand people who can exist without needing to read. And I don’t think you can be a good writer if you don’t need to read; if you’re not addicted to stories. Nowadays I can read and write at the same time without it affecting my style, but I have become lazy I think. Or perhaps just demotivated. It feels easier to pick up a book and read than it does to write these days.

    I’ll have to give Catcher a try. I’ve dismissed it a couple of times and it keeps coming back to nudge at me.

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  3. I agree Selma. I’m not a writer, but I love to read and like you, I read over 100 books a year. Mostly fiction. Writers who are well-read are much better writers. If you don’t read, then how on earth can you know what works and what doesn’t. From my years of reading I think I’m a pretty good judge of what works.

    My biggest pet peeve is when authors write in the third person, especially when they customarily write in the first person. I know it works sometimes and I’ve enjoyed books that were written like that. I’ve dropped a couple of authours I’ve enjoyed once they changed to third person though. For some reason, for me anyway, the story and the character’s “voices” don’t flow the same.

    My forever favorite author is Diane Gabaldon. Aspiring writers could learn alot from her. Not the least of which, can you imagine the research that goes into writing the Outlander series?? Those books are between 600 and 1000 pages. She makes history interesting. There’s more to writing a good story than folowing a “how to” set of rules. The ability to use ones imagination has to be there to pull the reader in.

    My favorite quote from a book is
    “Destiny struggles to reassert the pattern that was meant to be”
    Somehow that speaks to me.

    Like

  4. Selma says:

    Hi DAOINE:
    You are absolutely right. I find that in the thick of a plot it is best for me not to read any fiction. I wrote a whole novel when I was younger that could have been written by Anne Rice. It was like a kind of osmosis. So now, in the thick of it I tend to read a lot of poetry or light stuff like chick lit. Reading really relaxes me. I gather though, that many of these writing students are not reading at all. For years. It seems at odds with the whole idea of being a writer to me. I’d love to know why they do it. I’m going to grab one of my friend’s students and rack their brain. I want to get to the bottom of it.

    ‘Catcher’ can be hard work, mainly because the main character is such a pain, but there are little moments that are worth it!

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  5. Selma says:

    Hi CATHY:
    I love Diana Gabaldon too. Such incredible talent. To create those worlds with such detail is staggeringly hard work. I have such respect for her. I also like how she can’t be categorised. She straddles many genres. So many publishers and agents tell you not to mix genres and it can be very frustrating and limiting to do that when you have an idea that is far-reaching. I heard that one of the Outlander books was going to be made into a musical. Don’t know which one. It’ll be interesting to see if it works.

    It’s interesting what you say about the first and third person. I had a book deal a few years back but it fell through because I had written it in the first person and the agent wanted me to rewrite it in the third person. She felt first person was old school. I wanted the deal but I couldn’t imagine the torture of rewriting an entire novel in the third person.

    Sometimes it can be hard to know what to do as a writer because there is so much contradictory information coming down from the top. I guess you just have to go with your gut.

    Love your quote. How true it is!

    Like

  6. It is essential to read widely if you are a writer, in my opinion. I haven’t read many novel length books (fiction) lately – well only 2 this year, but that’s because I read a lot of non-fiction (mainly psychology books, nature/science books, biographies). I used to write a lot of non-fiction for my job and so that was what I read the most of. Now, I read poetry everyday, and lots of blogs – haha. I used to read much more fiction and I will in the future. I have a really bad habit of reading several books on the go and not finishing all of them. I’m reading about 10 books of poetry at the moment but also the novel ‘Pocketful of Names’ by Joe Coomer which a friend lent me because ‘you just have to read this book’. I also read a lot of children’s books, cause I just love them and never really grew up.

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  7. Lua says:

    Hi Selma, great post!
    You don’t read- you can’t write. That’s that, there is no other way around. Writers must be the best readers. I don’t believe in the “I’m so busy writing, I can’t find the time to read” excuses. If we want to be writers, we have to ‘make’ time to read.
    And that shouldn’t even be a burden because a true writer loves to read- s/he cannot not read, there for will find the time…
    One of the best advice I got was from my creative writing teacher who is also an excellent reader, he said, “Read anything. Read everything.”
    He had a point 🙂

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  8. Hey Selma, it was late last night when I wrote that. It’s not so much writing in the third person, its when it’s mixed with present tense that I don’t like it and won’t continue to read it. I don’t know why it doesn’t work, like I said , I’m not a writer but I would much rather read a book in third person if the writer doesn’t use present tense.

    By the way, that quote is attributed to Dean Koontz from his book Lightening. I like it so much its attached to my header on the blog lol

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  9. Steven Till says:

    I think you can certainly tell if a writer is an avid reader just by reading some of their works. Now, good writing also has a lot to do with editing, editing, and more editing, but you should be able to get a sense, even from reading rough drafts, whether a writer spends much time reading. Reading is the most important thing, and then taking what you have learned from studying the craft of other writers and applying that to your own writing. I think it’s important not to just read through a book quickly, but to spend time studying the sentence structures, the paragraph breaks, the dialogue, the writing style, the rhythm and pacing, the character habits, etc. Analyzing as you read will make you a better writer in my opinion.

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  10. Selma says:

    Hi GABRIELLE:
    You sound like me. A little bit of everything. I love children’s books too. I am currently reading a few at once – Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, End Of Term by Antonia Forest and An Edinburgh Reel by Iona MacGregor. They are fantastic. I am enjoying them so much. I think reading blogs counts as reading too. There are some fabulous writers out there!

    Hi LUA:
    That is really good advice. It’s so important. If you were a painter you would look at other people’s art. If you were a musician you would listen to music. So as a writer you must read what others have written. I think it definitely helps us grow as writers.

    Hi CATHY:
    Ah, now I’m with you. I don’t like that either. It can be very confusing and hard to follow the plot. It is not a technique that anyone can do well. I like my favourite writers to follow the style I’m used to. Makes me feel nice and comfortable 😀

    Hi STEVEN:
    I completely agree. Some paragraphs in particular – like anything written by Graham Greene – are so luscious it is almost as if you can eat them as you’re reading. I love settling into imagery and just basking in it. For me, a good writer can turn reading into a sensory experience. Thank you for such an insightful comment. Lovely of you to stop by!

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  11. Having just wasted time and money at a one week writing workshop, I can tell you I agree wholeheartedly. Think of all the books I could have bought with that money and read in that time. It’s as if the teacher holds some writing secrets instead of the books themselves.

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  12. Geraldine says:

    I picked up the Catcher in the Rye over at our library, just a couple of days ago, off the return rack, what are the odds? I must admit I haven’t read it, but I will now. I agree Sel, it’s hard to imagine aspiring writers not being avid readers. But it seems to be true. So many “young folk” are glued to computers nowadays, they are missing out on the joy of opening and savoring a good book. When I was a little girl, I helped out at a library, just down the street. The chief librarian allowed me to check out books at times (with a date stamp and cards!) heady stuff I tell y ou for a 7 year old! My nickname was “Bookworm” in those days, nuff said!

    Here’s to the joy of reading!

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  13. Selma says:

    Hi SQUIRREL:
    I think writer’s workshops and so on certainly have a place and can help steer you in the right direction but I also firmly believe the best way to grow as a writer is to write, write, write and read, read, read. I’m with you – I’d rather buy books than spend money on a course. Think of all the books I could get for fifteen grand!

    Hi GERALDINE:
    I used to love the date stamp on the library cards. It was lovely to see how many people had borrowed the book before me. I was a bookworm too. I second that – HERE’S TO THE JOY OF READING!!

    Like

  14. Steph says:

    Sel,

    I love this blog. You’ve inspired me to seriously consider writing fiction. Not my forte, but…you never know. Right now I’m reading “Stormy Weather” by Carl Hiaasen. His books are hilarious. Really fun fare. Next up is a re-read of Wuthering Heights.

    Like

  15. Selma says:

    Hi STEPH:
    Well that would make my year if you decided to write a novel. I know you could do it. I haven’t read ‘Stormy Weather’ but as you probably know I am a diehard fan of ‘Wuthering Heights.’ Enjoy it. I might just be able to squeeze it in next week because now that you’ve mentioned it, I can’t stop thinking about it.

    I’m coming, Heathcliff. I’m coming……

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  16. Ms. Karen says:

    I also have to be careful when I’m writing and reading, lest I find myself sounding more like someone else than myself. But when I’m not writing, I do love a good read (although I find myself enjoying old favorites more than new adventures).

    But, I cannot imagine any writer not reading, because without hearing another voice, there is no way to find your own.

    Like

  17. Selma says:

    Hi KAREN:
    That is a really important point. It is easy to absorb the style of a writer when we are writing. We have to be careful.

    I am also reviving old favourites. There is nothing better. Like sitting down for a cuppa with an old friend!

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  18. Kate says:

    I think I need to read The Catcher in the Rye again. I read it when I was in high school, hated it and never picked it up again. However, I’ve come to the realization that many things from childhood often seem different when you go back to them as an adult.

    I thought this was a lovely piece and will be sharing it with friends. Thanks!

    Like

  19. Selma says:

    Hi KATE:
    I was the same. Holden Caulfield really got on my nerves. I can’t say he didn’t get on my nerves again the next time I read it, but I was able to see past that to the literary mastery beneath.

    I’m really glad you stopped by here, Kate. I really appreciate it. I am aiming to do one piece on writing per week if I can. Stay tuned….

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  20. DavidM says:

    “They are adults who are paying fifteen thousand dollars to do a degree and they don’t read”.

    They are probably influenced by the type of writer they see on tv shows and movies. You know the type. The writer who never does any reading, research, or revision. Who spend his/her time galvanting and carousing about town, going to nightclubs and parties; having heaps of fun, adventures, romance and sexcapades. The type of writer who rarely writes. And when he or she does write -it’s either in the wee small hours of the morning or when he/she awakes in the afternoon with a hangover. And whatever he/she writes -it is done without effort and is brilliant and insightful. The reality is probably the wonderful prose the fictious writer has written was propably written (and rewritten/revised) by a team of scriptwriters and script editors
    Cheers DavidM

    I read every day. At present,
    My ‘breakfast, getting- ready -for- work’ reading is listening to ‘Silver Wattle’, a novel by Belinda Alexandra on CD.
    My ‘train ride to and from work’ reading is ‘Mr Paradise’ by Elmore Leonard.
    My sparetime reading is: blogs and ezines
    My ‘bathroom’ reading is The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

    Like

  21. Selma says:

    Hi DAVID:
    Forgive me for not responding to this comment straight away. Once again your comment is thoughtful and well-considered. Your daily reading list inspires me. You would have to be one of the most well-read people I know 😀

    Like

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