Madeleine Robins

September 19, 2011

It Must Follow, as the Night the Day

Filed under: Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:19 AM

I had a perfectly splendid time last weekend, making cake for Tachyon Publication’s 16th birthday party (it was a Sweet Sixteen cake.  With a rhinoceros.  In a tiara) and attending the party.  And as a nice add-on, I wound up getting to hang out with writers Nancy Kress, Jack Skillingstead, Pat Murphy, and Ellen Klages, all of whom are really smart people, funny, and know lots of stuff.  At dinner, apropos of something or other, Nancy said despairingly that in her writing classes she often had students who want to be writers, but admitted that they don’t read a whole lot.

Say what?

Aside from all the craft-related reasons to read–research, inspiration, scoping out new trends and (let’s be honest) the competition–how do you come to want to be a writer if you don’t read?  If the acquisition of story isn’t a kind of fuel for you? To me that’s like being a chef who doesn’t much like to eat; yeah, you can do it, but why?  It’s not like there are not more remunerative jobs, jobs with higher status.  So why? And how?  Why would you think of writing fiction if you never touch the stuff?

I guess there are reasons.  I guess.  My own writing is so firmly rooted in my need for story, my impulse to play make-believe, inspired by the writing of other people, that I can’t really wrap my brain around the idea of a writer who doesn’t read.  Okay, so writing-wise I am an auto-didact: I learned to tell stories by reading stories.  In fact, I’m a little suspicious of writing classes and writing books, because writers can hide behind prescriptions to the detriment of their work (“but look, I made it a classic 5-beat plot! And I gave the heroine backstory with telling details! and there’s lots of visual detail in the scene! and…”).  But that is just me: there really is no wrong way to do this writing thing, if it works for you. Except not reading?  It just doesn’t seem like a negotiable to me.

You don’t have to read fiction: many writers I know read more non-fiction than fiction simply because it’s research, or a springboard of ideas.  You can read poetry, plays, magazines, shampoo bottles, but you have to read.  If for no other reason than to see how other writers use language and work their ways around technical writing problems.

So why would a non-reader want to be a writer?  Why would a non-reader assume that other people would want to do the very thing he/she scorns?  Fame?  It could happen, but it’s not something you can depend upon.  Fortune?  Again, it could happen, but statistically it’s unlikely. The wish to use a skill, be your own boss, work a solitary job?  There are better ways to do it than write.  It’s like being a cook who doesn’t like food, or an historian who thinks the past is boring.

I don’t get it.  Do you?

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10 Comments »

  1. My guess — and I’ve witnessed this in person — that these are people who want to be Authors, but don’t actually want to write. I once had a haircutter tell me that she’d love to write her memoirs because she’d had such an interesting life, and segued directly to who should play her in the movie. I have also seen — online — several people equating being a writer with being rich. You may laugh bitterly now.

    Comment by Madame Hardy — September 19, 2011 @ 7:53 AM | Reply

    • Did I tell you about the sweet young woman I had in one of my writing classes who told me that she was an actress, which was a chancy way to make a living, so she thought she’d support herself by writing? She left after the first break–when she had digested the numbers I threw out about ratio of effort to success, and how much a beginning writer may expect to make.

      Comment by madeleinerobins — September 19, 2011 @ 7:58 AM | Reply

  2. You did her a great service. When I was in high school, I read a very good book about So You Want To Be An Actor/Actress. It said flat-out, “If there is any other profession you can imagine being happy in, do it.”, and followed with an explanation of what a difficult and grinding profession it is, and how enormous the competition among the trained, talented, and experienced people.

    Comment by Madame Hardy — September 19, 2011 @ 8:04 AM | Reply

  3. I’m not sure I want to be a writer – saves competition in the family circle, you know – but I do want to know how to bake that cake!! It was yummy :)

    Comment by Rina — September 19, 2011 @ 8:10 AM | Reply

    • I can send you the recipe… (wait, am I undercutting my business?)

      Comment by madeleinerobins — September 19, 2011 @ 9:07 AM | Reply

  4. A variant of the “wanting to Have Written, not to write” might be a student I had once, very briefly — he showed up on my list, and wrote me a letter explaining that he’d decided not to take the class because he’d figured out that he didn’t have anything else left to learn in the class, and he was going out to become a famous writer now, thanks.

    I told him I appreciated his letting me know, wished him well, and said something about how even famous writers generally read a lot, learning by observation from the best and the worst. Since he’d paid for the class, perhaps he should see if there was a nugget or two of information that might be useful?

    Nope. Never have seen anything by him come out. Maybe now that it’s so much easier he’ll do it.

    Comment by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel — September 19, 2011 @ 10:11 AM | Reply

  5. It blows my mind how many people in general that don’t read. Double that for writers who don’t read! We have a more recent acquaintance who fancies himself a writer; I feel like I’m a showoff, with all the literary references I apparently make, that I then have to explain. Especially in tabletop gaming circles, somebody who doesn’t read is odd; a writer who doesn’t read is just anomalous. There are some things that are just expected to be common knowledge, like Baba Yaga, or when the Crusades were.

    (also, the Rhino cake was adorable!)

    Comment by Jen — September 19, 2011 @ 10:16 AM | Reply

  6. Writers who don’t read?
    At last an explanation for some of the unreadable books I’ve come across.

    Comment by Dan Pelletier — September 19, 2011 @ 4:59 PM | Reply

  7. Totally agree with you, and just about every author I interview says you have to read. A lot. Stephen King himself said: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

    The reason I became a writer (and again I get this from a lot of published authors too) is because I read great stories from the likes of Stephen King and others that inspired me and made me want to write and created great and wonderful and terrifying stories too. To the point where I find myself getting the “itchy writing finger” and not just wanting, but need to write, when I read great writers like King, Gaiman, Chabon, LeGuin . . . they just put me in my happy place where I feel creative and want to make worlds and characters and stories . . .

    Comment by bookbanter — September 20, 2011 @ 9:33 AM | Reply

  8. […] It Must Follow, as the Night the Day — Madeleine Robins on writers who don’t read. Huh? […]

    Pingback by [links] Link salad is even more ragged | jlake.com — September 20, 2011 @ 4:14 PM | Reply


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