Madeleine Robins

It Must Follow, as the Night the Day

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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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