By Brad Windhauser
I watched Project Runway for a couple seasons early on, in part because I like to see what pressure does to creativity.I also enjoyed the cat-fighting as well as eavesdropping on approaches to craft. At the end of season 5, Tim Gunn visited the particularly annoying girl in NY to check the progress on her final collection. One rather beautiful dress caught his attention—it was sculpted with some type of white feather. He complimented the dress but was a bit disappointed. You know, he said, this is very similar to what a famous designer showed the previous season. Did she see the similarity?
Oh no, she responded, she didn’t pay attention to what other designers did. Tim Gunn had no words.
As in any field of art—writing is no different—you MUST pay attention to what is out there (past and present). And that is why, the best advice I ever received about writing is that any writer MUST read, and read often.>I am sure this lesson was implied during my pursuit of a Lit/creative writing undergrad degree. Why else would my professors have assigned all those readings? I don’t recall anyone stating this fact of the craft explicitly until I stared my Master’s program at Rutgers-Camden, though. There, my Fiction professor Lisa Zeidner took one look at my first workshop submission and told me straight out: you don’t read enough. I assured her that I had read a lot (in that wounded grad student voice), such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. These were the authors of my literary wheelhouse. Plus I had the authors and books on my exam reading list for the program.
Her response: Yeah, those authors are nice, but you can’t act like nothing’s been written since.
Didn’t she know how busy I was? Didn’t she know I was working on the draft of my first novel, waiting tables, studying for my classes, building a new social life in Philadelphia (as a recent San Diego transplant)? Is it clear how whiny this sounds?
If you want to become a better writer, you have to put the time into reading. I really don’t know what else to tell you, she said.
I took her advice and bought a couple of the books she recommended. But I really did not embrace the philosophy until I graduated. A year out of grad school, I was teaching two classes, waiting tables, and trying to polish my manuscript. I read when I could.
Then a funny thing happened.
As I spent more time reading the articles and stories I assigned my students, I began to read as a writer, not a reader. I paid attention to how writers built characters, story; how they used (or avoided) dialogue, setting, time. These can be learned in a textbook, sure, but you need to see how these tools surface in the works of others. Authors approach their use differently and you can learn from them all.
Writing without reading is akin to flailing in the pitch dark of a mansion you’ve never been in. You might find your way across the room, but it will take time and you’ll probably knock things over in the process (and probably hurt yourself too). Reading is akin to turning on the lights and letting you move around that room with more confidence, freedom: You can see things that were in your way and take time to appreciate things you didn’t know were even there.
But just reading isn’t enough. Selecting WHAT you read is equally—and perhaps MORE—important. Aside from reading as a writer, not as a reader for enjoyment, you need to give a lot of thought to the types of books and authors that will constitute your creative diet.
One approach is to work through the Pulitzer Prize winners, beginning with the most recent. This allows you to see what a particular body has held up as the best of the best (each winner offers something strong in terms of character, or story, or craft) and also shows the types of stories being embraced in a given year. Then you can branch out to some of the more notable books of the year—ask friends, other writers what they are reading, what they liked about a book. Then read in your genre books whose plots and/or characters speak to you: how do other authors who are trying to tell a similar type of story approach it?
Furthermore, vary the types of books you read. If you select a lot of character-driven books, switch to a more plot driven one. This allows the strengths of each to stand out better, as you have something to compare each to.
These books are your textbooks, and if you hold on to them, you can refer back to them when you can’t wrap your head around how to work with a particular tool. For example, if I want to revisit an author’s use of time and handling of multiple character plotlines in a novel, I’ll thumb through The Corrections. If I want to revisit how an author infuses judgment of her characters, I’ll re-read Olive Kitteridge. If I want to pay attention to how the epistolary style can offer brief, vivid moments over a long period, I’ll revisit The Stone Diaries.
And by all means, don’t restrict yourself to your own genre. If you write fiction, read heavily in this genre but also read narrative non-fiction as well as poetry. The different genres may have different conventions but they all use language. And spend time mixing media by watching movies. Movies can teach you how emotion is conveyed without language.
Basically, the more you expose yourself to, the better appreciation you’ll have for how people tell stories.