Reading While Writing

writing and reading

I love to read. It’s why I love to write. At the moment, I have piles of lit journals on my nightstand, collections of short stories and a couple of novels.

But I’ve discovered in the last few years that when focussing on my own writing, reading becomes a liability. Too much reading is bad for my art. I have the voice of the author in my head too often drowning out my own voice. Even after putting down the book, I have a difficult time getting that voice out of my head.

That’s one. A second reason to reduce my reading intake has to do with distraction.

Writing is a difficult-enough endeavor as it is. There are all kinds of things to do around the house besides write. There’s laundry, yoga, spiralizing zucchini, folding fitted sheets, brushing the cat, walking the dog, calling my mother, writing a blog. Reading, especially a riveting novel by a talented writer, takes me down the wrong path for several days, perhaps more than week. Gasp. It takes me down the path of not writing.

Last fall, I spent a great deal of time researching low-residency MFA programs in Creative Writing. I called and talked to directors of programs. I even visited a campus for one while on vacation in North Carolina. Most of these programs require their students to read 15 to 20 books each semester on top of writing and revising original work. On top of writing critical papers and essays.

In the description for Bennginton College’s program, it says, “Read one hundred books. Write one.” This program is highly ranked and has a fantastic faculty, but this philosophy escapes me. Yes, reading teaches us something about how to write. But at some point, the writer must pull back on the reading. In my opinion, the way to write a book is to write a book.

In an interview for Upstreet, Robert Olen Butler — who wrote the fantastic From Where You Dream, which is about the creative process — was asked several questions about teaching in the PhD program in Creative Writing at FSU. When asked what books he has his students read, he says this:

The answer is nothing; zero. To become a great writer you have to go through a long period of ravenous reading, and you may well return to that at some point, when you have time each day. But when you’re trying to find your own voice, I think you have to read less, not more.

Amen. In all fairness, I do dip into literary journals, poetry and short stories, pieces that I can learn from but also don’t require too much commitment. Reading less is the key here. Not more.

Incidentally, I decided not to apply to an MFA program at all. I truly felt that it wasn’t the right move for me, that focuses on the requirements for a degree would detract significantly from writing. I took a pass. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões, Flickr Creative Commons

3 Comments on “Reading While Writing”

  1. Nice post and your point is well made. Reading is what should make one (so inclined) to become a writer. But that should be happening through grade school and if there’s college, college. And once one’s a “working writer” reading, even if you love it, has got to take back seat. And be quiet back there!

  2. I couldn’t agree more. If I wrote like I read, my writing would become completely schizophrenic. It’s not just the author’s voice I pick up, but also the tone for the intended audience. Neil Gaiman, for example, may have the same voice throughout his works, but Coraline is a far cry from American Gods! Thanks for your post.

  3. This is something I struggle with as well, but in a different way. When I read something that is well written, I think, “And I call myself a writer? I should go sit down in the corner instead of trying to write something as beautiful/clever/funny/insightful/whatever as this.”

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