Why Does a Writer Need to Read?


Reading Room at the British Musem

When I first arrived at university, innocent and impressionable,  I talked to a glamorous third year who didn’t read much because she thought it would interfere with the uniqueness of her writing style. She also corrected the spelling of a note I put up in the kitchen.

I have to say, at that time it was easy to find myself persuaded by the girl’s view.  Apart from the fact that she was attractive, a third year, and good at spelling, this was a stage in my writing career when admiring a book would immediately make me want to write in the style of its particular author.  Perhaps literary quarantine was required.  Maybe the usual advice for aspiring writers to read all the time wasn’t the right way to go.  It didn’t, of course,  take long to abandon this idea  I enjoyed reading for one thing, and while I was willing to accept sacrifices to be a writer – career insecurity, lack of marriage offers and so on – giving up reading was a step too far.   I also quickly came to the conclusion that it was precisely the wrong thing to do, because it’s a simple fact that a writer’s work is not unique. Each genre is like a great big soap opera with many writers contributing episodes.  Individual writers might not all be together in a big room, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t  working together.    A successful writer is like a scientist who we associate with a breakthrough.  This individual, for all their fame,  in reality worked with many other people, both directly in their working lives, and indirectly in basing their work on the efforts of others who went before.  People like a clear picture, a good story which focuses on an individual.  But while Thomas Edison, for example,  is meant to have invented all kinds of things, he was actually a man who ran research teams, the combined efforts of which became associated with the name Edison.   Writing is like that. Finding your own voice does not involve avoiding other writers, but rather finding out how your voice fits in with them. People imagine a writer engaging in solo effort in their attic.  In reality it’s more like singing in a choir, getting the odd solo if you’re lucky.  At the minute I admit that I am part of the chorus.  But no matter.  The soloists depend on the chorus behind them, and one way or another, successful or unsuccessful, we are all part of that common effort.  I will keep going, and if you’re a struggling writer I wish you the best.  We’re all in it together.

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