By ALAN CLOSE
None of us, we’re pretty sure, would want to write if we didn’t love reading. We want to write because we love words and sentences and the alchemy they can create. But reading is not only information and entertainment.
The best way to learn how to write is to read. Read everything. Even the books you don’t like. Read them with an eye to what doesn’t work for you and why.
Raymond Chandler used to say that it is often easier to learn from the second-raters than the top-shelf writers. We might read the very best writers to be transported and inspired, but often these writers are so good, their voice so singular, that they appear seamless. It is as if their writing has fallen from heaven, not (as is undoubtedly the case) been hard-won through long hours at the desk. (‘Easy reading is damn hard writing,’ said Nathaniel Hawthorne.)
Reading a book that doesn’t really work for you gives you the chance to pick it apart and figure out why. You can see the writer’s imperfections and learn from them.
When you find a writer you really like, it is also reassuring to search out their early work to see their development and realize know that they weren’t always so great. Like all of us, they had to learn their craft. They had to learn how to use words.
Hemingway quipped that no-one could be a writer until he (sic) had read the dictionary from cover to cover.
Stephen King (whose book ‘On Writing’ is full of helpful advice) writes: The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one's papers and identification pretty much in order.
A love of reading precedes the desire or opportunity to write, and often succeeds it too.
We all read differently. Sarah is a fast reader, often zipping through a book a day, while I read slowly, savouring the sentences. (I like to remind Sarah of Woody Allen’s joke: ‘I took a speed reading course and read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.’)
All that matters is that you read as much as you can. It’s the best teacher you’ll find.
Below is an article Sarah wrote for Victorian Writer about her reading and how it’s changed since having a baby.
Month of reading
by Sarah Armstrong
In 2009 I read a hundred and seventeen books. I know this because I made a note of every book and what I thought of it.
Looking back at the list, it is hard not to notice - among the novels such as Of A Boy by Sonya Hartnett and So Long, See you Tomorrow by William Maxwell - titles like The Infertility Cure by Dr Randine Lewis, Getting Pregnant by Prof. Robert Jansen, and a little later in the year, The Natural Way to Birth and Bonding by Francesca Naish and Janette Roberts.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that in 2010, when our baby Amelia was born, I read a mere two books: Baby Love by Robin Barker and The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers by Jack Newman, MD.
In 2011 I read something like twenty books. At this rate I’ll be back to a hundred books by the time Amelia goes to high school.
If I’m only going to read twenty books in a year, they better be good. So I’m a much more brutal reader than I used to be. If a book doesn’t grab me in ten pages, I shelve it. Abandoned books in the past month include: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski and The Lost Art of Sleep by Michael McGirr.
I’m discovering the books that survive my ten-page test are mostly old favourites. There’s Tim Winton’s The Turning, which I read first when it came out in 2004. I remember sinking into his lean, lyrical prose with joy and relief and I have felt the same this week. I think I most love how tenderly he portrays his characters’ longings and failings.
The Turning sparked my interest in linked short stories. When it’s done well, I find it a hugely satisfying form. Each story has an emotional and narrative completeness and also works to building an overall narrative arc. The Dew Breaker by Haitian-American writer, Edwidge Danticat is another fine example. But my all-time favourite collection of linked short stories is the Pulitzer Prize winning, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I was impressed by how Elizabeth Strout managed an (initially) unlikeable protagonist and took me on a journey of coming to care for and understand her. Perhaps that’s one of the things I love most about reading (and writing): the sense that I can get under someone’s skin and feel compassion for them and how they deal with life’s complications.
In the last month I’ve also re-read The Spare Room by Helen Garner. If I feel in need of both comfort and inspiration, I return to anything she’s written. Her clean, frank and observant writing always refreshes me.
Next on my re-read list is Dog Boy by Eva Hornung, surely one of the best novels published in Australia in recent years. It’s the evocative, gritty story of a boy who is abandoned and ends up living with dogs.
Another re-read is my friend Jesse Blackadder’s evocative historical drama set in 16th century Scotland, The Raven’s Heart, which I first read in manuscript form.
On my bedside table for the last month has been Being Alive, a poetry anthology edited by Neil Astley. In it I’ve discovered some new poets and, unsurprisingly, have found especially moving the poems on pregnancy and motherhood.
I’m interested, in writing this piece, to realise to what extent I am reading old favourites. I have done it again with poetry: Sharon Olds’ The Gold Cell, Michael Ondaatje’s Secular Love, and Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture. Perhaps while change is around me – learning motherhood, and the wonder and delight of seeing Amelia grow and learn – there is comfort in the familiar. Or perhaps I am simply not willing to risk precious reading time trying out something new.
Last week I gave a writer friend (Jesse, as it happens) How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish and I liked his slightly irreverent, passionate style so much that I have ordered it for myself.
A few friends have wondered if I am suffering from reducing my reading. But I have to say that I have no sense of loss. Some day I will return to reading a few books a week, but in the meantime I am happy indeed to spend most of my reading time on books such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill, and Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley.
A version of this article first appeared in the Victorian Writer magazine in August 2011.