I have long believed that the best way to become a good writer is to read voraciously, read deeply, read obsessively, read what is popular, read award winners, read crap, read outside your genre, read other's evaluations of what you are reading... READ! I will be the first to admit that my philosophy is often my downfall because, in the face of some of the amazing literature I am reading, what I write often falls far short of my hopes. Conversely, some of what I read leaves me grieving for the state of literature and despairing that, if I should ever complete a novel, there will be no one to read it.
For the last few years I have been a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. The Seattle chapter hosts monthly professional education meetings with speakers that range from award winning authors to up and coming literary agents. I never fail to learn something useful at an SCBWI meeting. There is also a small SCBWI group that meets in my town. There are perhaps twenty people who visit these local meetings and the format has evolved into more of a critique group/ social club rather than an educational meeting. I don't see this as a problem. Writers tend to be isolated and most could benefit from an occasional outing with others who are chasing the same dream.
Several months ago this small group was discussing our favorite books or what we read that inspires us and my turn to talk came soon after a woman who told us that she loves the Junie B. Jones series, that she has stacks of JBJ books and her series is going to be just like them. Any book that encourages early readers to pick up a book is a good book, although I don't particularly like Junie B. Jones, so I didn't have anything to say as this woman gushed about the books. When it was my turn I started to talk about my goal of reading the last ten years of Newberry award winners when I was suddenly interrupted by the JBJ woman. "I don't know why you would bother reading those!" she crowed. I stuttered.. I'm not a great public speaker.. something about the idea that reading good literature is the key to writing good literature. "I know a librarian who says that she would never recommend a Newberry winner to a kid because they are too boring!" she said and then went on to further extol the virtues of Junie. I am ashamed to say I that the best retort I could come up with was to mutter about writing for different levels of readers and that there was a market for both types of literature. She sneered at me! "Well you must be veeerrry smart because I tried to read one of those and it didn't make any sense to me! And you think kids are going to read it?"
I've never been back to the local meeting. I'm afraid she'll stomp all over me with her Junie B Jones rainboots. She truly intimidated me. Not because she was right but because she was loud and opinionated and so sure that if she didn't understand something it must have no value to her goal of writing for children. Months later I'm still trying to figure out how I could have handled it differently. Honestly, I could not begin to understand what had motivated her attack on me.
This week I've read two very interesting articles that have given me some insight into the mindset of this loud woman. The first, by Laura Miller, a senior writer for Salon.com, is a criticism of Nanowrimo and the fascination that people seem to have for writing books while rarely reading them. I so clearly see JBJ lady in this article. She wants the glamour of calling herself a writer but doesn't seem to understand that the goal must be to produce literature that makes people want to read.
"Rather than squandering our applause on writers -- who, let's face it, will keep on pounding the keyboards whether we support them or not -- why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers? Why not celebrate them more heartily? They are the bedrock on which any literary culture must be built. After all, there's not much glory in finally writing that novel if it turns out there's no one left to read it."
Laura Miller, Better Yet, DON'T Write That Novel
Whether writing for five year olds or adults, quality matters. More importantly, variety matters.. writing for the reader so that they will continue to read. We don't need a Junie B Jones clone. We need writers who understand and love to write for first graders.. or second graders... or precocious sixth graders who need a literary challenge and find it in "boring" books like "When You Reach Me" the 2010 Newberry winner by Rebecca Stead.
The second article I read was in preparation for a SCBWI lecture in Seattle tonight. The lecture is on point of view and the speaker will be referencing essays written by Zadie Smith, award winning (adult) novelist and Professor of Creative Writing at New York University. It was suggested that attendees take the time to read the essays. Oh what a challenge! My poor shrunken mommy brain struggled to comprehend the material.
"All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene." Zadie Smith, Two Paths for the Novel.
In the time it took me to read the essay I became convinced that my brain might be made of quicksand and any attempt to cut a neural route would simply be swallowed by the muck and mire, and quickly overlaid with images of SpongeBob and his icky friend Patrick. It would be so easy to dismiss Ms. Smith's essays with a flippant declaration that I'm not writing for adults and this stuff is boring anyway... Ah.. a new empathy for the Junie B Jones Lady... Perhaps her shrill dismissal of my personal reading goal was simply a symptom of her fear of inadequacy? As I struggled to comprehend the material I faced my own fears. Fear of not being smart enough or creative enough. Fear of failure.
Writing a book should be a simple thing. There are no new stories after all. You simply decide what you want to say and write it down, right? Character A meets Character B, they have a problem, they solve their problem, the story ends. Simple. But characters, like people, are complex and can be difficult to understand. They argue about stupid things, they run away from conflict, they hide in routine, they fight with other people rather than fighting what they fear. I will never have the patience or persistence to argue with the Junie B Jones woman but I think I understand her better now. I have a feeling her character will show up in my fiction someday.
Yes, reading is the best way to become a good writer. Read books, read people, read everything, but don't stop there. Filter it through your own complexities and the unique structure of your compounded experience and fears.. and then.. write.