by Anne Brooke
I’d like to share a cunningly hidden secret with you – one all too often forgotten by the writing world and one that I’ve even heard people say is a bad thing, if you’re in the process of writing. Every time I hear that, I groan inside, I can tell you.
It’s the secret of reading. Not something talked about much in writers’ circles or in writers’ conferences, but to my mind it’s the foundation upon which writing skills can be learnt and by which they’re able to develop to the full.
If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first and foremost. It has to be so much a part of your life that you almost get to the stage where you don’t even notice you’re doing it. When I was young, my mother (rightly enough) never allowed us to read at the breakfast table, even when we were on our own. But without something to read, I felt at a loss, not quite whole. So, as nothing else was allowed, I would read the cereal packet. Back and front, top and bottom, both sides too. Having words – however regimented and unexciting – in front of my eyes and easing their way into my eager young brain seemed to place me more fully in the world. They were something to hang on to, something that even seemed to make more sense of me. Incidentally, they also made me an expert with the marketing approaches of Mr Kellogg, but that’s probably another story …
As a child, reading was one glorious adventure after another. You could find magical, mysterious worlds within the covers of a book, and that’s a feeling that’s never really left me, even through the rather drier (in terms of reading) University years (see below). Sometimes I could hardly bear to put a book down. I regularly secreted a book under my pillow or under the covers so after official “lights out time”, I could lean precariously out of my bed and read by the landing light instead. Goodness knows why I never thought of a torch or even simply got out of bed, but I didn’t. I was always a rather literal child and liked to think that at least I was still in bed as the parents had instructed, so they couldn’t be too upset if they ever found out. They didn’t, I think.
And reading, I think, is like that. Or should be. All during my teens, twice-weekly or even three times weekly trips to the library were factored into our evenings (how my mother must have groaned at the “book miles” she clocked up …) and I must be the only person I know who’d read Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time before she was seventeen. Though, sadly, not in the right order. Indeed, that fatal and dangerous mix of Dumas and Powell is probably partially responsible for the type of books I produce now, though I wish I had half their pizzazz. Which just goes to show that a writer’s output may primarily be formed by his or her reading childhood and young adulthood. Be afraid, be very afraid …
At University, two English degrees meant that the thrill of getting a new book faded, I admit. The demands of coursework reading for tutorials, seminars and ultimately examination both at undergraduate and postgraduate level caused the magic of the book itself to grow a little weaker, but it gave me other skills which are just as useful for a committed reader who wishes to write, or indeed for any reader: a deeper understanding of structure; a broader concept of theme; a working knowledge of the interrelationship of plot and character. Now, reading a book meant not only that I could enter another world, but that I could have a more intimate understanding of an author. And, in addition, of that author’s relationship with the world they lived in. Because with every word written, the creator of that word gives away something of their character and purpose, and reveals themselves more fully to the reader. For me, discovering books became a discovery of their writers also.
After University, and without the pressure of gaining a degree or two, I found that slowly the magic of reading crept back into my life. It wasn’t the same however, though I’d thought perhaps it might be. But in the end I realised that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The magic had been blended with a more purposeful sense of the possibilities of analysis. Now I could respond to a book as a reader, but also as a kind of surgeon too. I could decide whether something worked, or not. And why. I found myself both enjoying what I read and also wondering if it would have been better (or worse!) if the author had done something differently, changed a scene here, added a character there. And so on.
And, all the while this was happening, I was – unbeknown to me – storing up knowledge I could draw on when, in my late thirties, I began to write fiction for the first time. And, yes, of course – as we all know – it’s different when we ourselves actually begin to write. It’s not how it is in the books we’ve read, or even in the picture we had in our minds before the pen reaches the paper or the finger reaches the keyboard. Believe me – it never will be. The battle and the fun are in the trying. But it’s my belief that a lot of the writer’s art comes from a deep understanding of the field we’ve chosen to work in. That understanding can be improved by adding the skills of the writing trade that can easily be found in every county in the land – via writing courses; writing conferences; writing groups. We know they’re there and we should use them. There’s always – always – room for improvement. But the understanding itself is something far richer and more subconscious and comes from our reading world: the books we’ve read in the past and those we’re reading now are a vital factor in the kind of writers we are or want to become. Reading is also a way of being more human and more alive. What we love to read – even more than what we love to write – teaches us who we are and shows us our place in the world.
These days, I find I always have several types of books on the go: a novel or short story collection; a book of poetry; a biography, historical or current; and a book of spiritual reading. Oh and let’s not forget the Bible – whatever your religious opinions, it has some of the most beautiful poetry ever produced, the best pieces of flash fiction (aka the parables), the best epic story telling, and a cunning sense of character. Plus it’s almost impossible to understand any work of western literature prior to the twentieth century without it.
So, when I hear writers say that they don’t read while they’re writing because they fear it would influence them too much or affect their own writing in some negative way, I am for all these reasons deeply shocked. It takes away so much of the treasure house they could be storing up for present or future use, and it makes them so much less than they could be. And their reasons for not reading are precisely the reasons why they should: they should be influenced and their writing should be affected, in a positive way. That, after all, is the point of a book. Nobody writes a book (or lives or breathes or loves) in a vacuum. Not reading whilst one is writing is akin to saying that because I love my husband, I can’t then also love my mother too. But neither love nor books are like that – there’s always enough to go round. I freely admit that without Maria McCann’s magnificent novel, As Meat Loves Salt, or virtually anything produced by Patricia Duncker, I would never have had the courage even to attempt A Dangerous Man or Maloney’s Law. It inspired me to the type of work I never knew I could write. And showed me more about myself than I’d ever known before. I like to think I’m a better writer because I read those books first. And trust me: no matter who or what you read while you’re writing, you’ll always find your own voice and your own way of telling the tale you want to tell. You don’t have to worry about plagiarism – if it happens (and it’s rarer than you think, when done unconsciously) it’ll be obvious as it won’t be in your voice or your story and, in that case, you can easily press delete or Tippex it out and start again.
But never, ever be afraid of reading. It’ll add a richness and depth to your world that you simply don’t want to miss. Because, just as there are three vital factors that you must bear in mind when buying a house: location; location; location – so there are three vital factors you have to nourish if you want to be a writer: read; read; read. All the time, whether you’re writing or whether you’re not. Oh, and enjoy. You’ll never regret it.
Anne Brooke’s fiction has been shortlisted for the Harry Bowling Novel Award, the Royal Literary Fund Awards and the Asham Award for Women Writers. She has also twice been the winner of the DSJT Charitable Trust Open Poetry Competition. Her latest poetry collection is A Stranger’s Table, and her latest novel is Maloney’s Law. Both are available from Amazon. Her work is represented by agent, John Jarrold, and she has a secret passion for birdwatching. More information can be found at www.annebrooke.com and she keeps a terrifyingly honest journal at http://annebrooke.blogspot.com.
Picture credit of station: Mo Riza