Tips from the MFA Pit, Part 8 – Read to Write

Remember, dear readers, I’m an instructor in an MFA program, so outside of my lovely  college freshmen, I also mentor grad students in the craft of writing. One of the subjects I guide them through is Reading for Writers, where we look at the student’s chosen genre and study its practitioners in depth.

But if one is a writer, do they also need to be a reader? I find Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer valuable as one of the first things you hear when you attempt writing is you must be a reader. Why is that? Well, if you’re going to be a doctor, don’t you need to see sick people? Observe broken-down cars if you’re going to be a mechanic? Taste food if you want to know how to cook it? In the same vein, if you want to write you need to become familiar with what’ll be the end result of your work, and how others view what it should be.

Because of that, I believe it’s important to read more than what you’re accustomed to. Of course, everyone has their favorite genres (mine being anything political and historical fiction and non-fiction), but like an old sweater it’s important to reach beyond what you’re comfortable with. Stretching outside our genre opens us up to new methods of approaching the craft, and reading the classics shows us why those books have lasted the test of time.

You mentioned a few of the classic authors, and I can’t tell you how much I learned from them. Austen, with her divine wit, Orwell, with his command of metaphor and symbolism, Warton, with her period mastery of detail. As a student of humor, I’ve learned a lot from the more current authors, such as Carl Hiaasen’s master use of dialogue, and David Sedaris’ hilarious use of the short-form essays. When we vary our reading, when we stretch into other forms that we’re not as familiar with, the lessons from their techniques leach into our writing psyche like osmosis, and we can’t help coming out better writers at the end. The more you expose yourself to, the more cosmopolitan your writing becomes. You just can’t help it.

So, what’s your favorite readers? Are they what you write? Sometimes they are, as I read scads and scads of literary fiction, but never attempted to write it. Then again, what is literary fiction? Charles Dickens in his day was writing for the everyday masses. Hm…could that be what my own writing will be one day? I can only hope!

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