A Writer Reads

I confess that I am a chronic eavesdropper, especially on SEPTA, where you can overhear great personal tragedies in the time it takes you to travel from South Philly to City Hall. Just the other day, my interest was piqued when I heard two twenty-something girls talking about writing fiction. One said she was working on a story about a girl working on a story. She confessed she’d been reading a lot of meta-fiction and it was screwing with her brain. The other girl popped her gum before saying, “Oh, well, I never read. It just gets in the way of my writing.” I actually found myself turning around in my seat to argue with her, before realizing that technically, I wasn’t part of the conversation.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard would-be writers proudly (and naively) proclaim themselves to be non-readers. To me, this statement is akin to a painter saying he’s never visited a museum, a doctor who has not attended a single anatomy class, a comedy duo who never heard Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine. If you are a writer, you damn well be a reader too.

I don’t mean you have to devote your life to untangling Milton’s Paradise Lost or memorizing passages from Ulysses, but I do recommend that your library card remain active and that you have at least two or three books splayed open on your bedside table. I would also urge you to read in your genre, paying particular attention to novelists whose work you admire and whose subject matter you’re drawn to in your own writing. That is, if you are working on a novel about a woman from the Midwest whose daddy is farmer, read some Jane Smiley. If you like dark and twisty short stories involving light to moderate spanking, crack open a Mary Gaitskill’s collection.

Reading for writers can do so many things—it can be inspiring, it can give you new ideas to steal, it can make you feel better about procrastinating from your own writing. If you’re reading, you can tell yourself that it’s okay that you haven’t written anything for a few weeks; at least you’re actively engaged in the next best thing. And, if you’re stuck in your story, reading one can save you.

I remember working on a short story about two grown up sisters who didn’t get along. I wrote and rewrote that story over and over again. It kept getting longer and more sprawling and ripe with clichés and flashbacks about stolen Halloween candy. Finally, I realized that I had to get it under control. First, I had to decide how much time was going to pass in the present day part of the story—one day, one week, one year, a lifetime?

In desperation, I went over to my bookshelf and pulled down a collection of Raymond Carver’s short stories. The book opened immediately to one of my favorites, “Cathedral.” Okay, so that gave me one answer. My story would take place in a single evening, just as his did.

I went back to my desk and wrote about just the one night. I got stuck again. I knew that something of significance had to change in that night I  was writing about (see rule #138 in short story writing—don’t write about the day that nothing happened), but I couldn’t figure out how to do that short of creating a natural disaster. Again, I went back to “Cathedral.” In this story, the narrator is a sardonic and unhappily married man, spending one evening with his estranged wife and a blind man she’s invited over for dinner. By the end of the night, the narrator has been transformed by the simple act of trying to describe something amazing (a cathedral they’re hearing about on TV) and by connecting with another person. Again, the story helped me find my answer. I had to allow the sisters to come together—even just for an instant; that would be the moment of change, the moment of grace.

The best part of this example is that Carver’s story isn’t original either. It’s based on a D.H. Lawrence story called “The Blind Man.” Of course, his version is different (as was mine), but he came to it through reading. As will you.

Aimee LaBrie is an award-winning author and
teaches a fiction workshop for Philadelphia Stories.

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