Not long ago I went on a rant about the cookie-cutter era and how, as I read through various journals, I couldn’t decipher one narrative voice from another. Well, that hasn’t changed much, but that’s not the point of today’s post.
I digress even further. I’ve written before about why we should read and mostly it’s because as writers we need to be informed about what others are doing and how we might “steal” techniques that help us learn how to be better writers ourselves. Reading informs our lives in so many ways, and it’s very good for us, like the way eating organic food is good, exercise is good, and being nice is good. All of these things take a little effort but there’s a benefit to be had in doing them. That benefit is a better life.
Last night I was enjoying some reading time with one of my favorite literary publications, Glimmer Train, and I wasn’t even feeling much cookie-cutter annoyance with the particular issue I was reviewing. Not, mind you, that I found the writing of some of the stories especially rewarding. There are still far too many first person narratives for my sensibilities (I find the first person POV to be a cheat. It’s narcissistic, indulgent, and way overdone. Not that it isn’t effective, but the overuse of the FP POV is like hearing the same five songs on the radio, all day long, every day), and I didn’t see much risk-taking. You know me (or maybe you don’t) and I like my fresh.
I got to thinking, with all of these FP POV stories and such a precedent of a singular narrative voice (ironic, wry, a little vulgar and trendy), what am I learning from reading this stuff? I thought, ‘if this story can get published why not mine?’ I thought, ‘if I were going to write a story like this I would do it this way . . .’ And a light went on. By the time I closed the pages of that journal I was ready for an easy sleep, because I knew when I got up the next morning I was armed with two things that will eventually make me successful (according to my terms). 1) I have a unique narrative style and I’m not going to compromise it to fit some mold of expectation in the current publishing world. 2) While there’s nothing new under the sun, by staying true to my voice and by fostering my style, I will be telling the kind of story I like to hear and read, the kind that gets me to open another new journal, or a novel, and try reading again, not because I need to learn how to tell a story so much, but because I enjoy the discovery of reading something twenty or fifty pages in that is unlike anything else in the collection. So while we may read for technique, and we may read for understanding, and we may read for subject matter, there comes a time when we read for something equally as important. We read for inspiration.
I have a new approach to writing time. After all, I struggle like everyone else with finding the motivation to sit down every day and write. But I have discovered instant motivation in reading contemporary collections. Not because I think my work is better than the others. Certainly they have been published and are being read by thousands of people, an accomplishment that is no small feat. But I do get motivated by seeing what I’m not fond of because it helps me hear my voice better. In addition, when I do find something I especially like, I still have the benefit of learning from it, and of the thrill of discovery, and in sharing that discovery with others.
A writer is not harmed by a little hubris (just a little). Five minutes of pride per day, just to get started, is rather a tonic for good health in the creative process. Like a shot of hard liquor, it’s not going to damage your liver if you keep it to a minimum.
The moral of this story, therefore, is that reading serves a great many purposes for the aspiring writer, from exemplifying the craft, to addressing technical challenges, to revealing cliched, tired styles and ideas. But most importantly reading can serve as inspiration for getting back to your own work, in your voice, and with some real effort maybe even in a new style of writing that others will one day enjoy not because they see it on every page, but because they can only find it on yours.
And so, if you have not heard it already, read on my friend, read well. Read much and plenty. Then go write, first and foremost, for yourself.