Sounds simple enough. But let’s unpack that statement.
First of all, it’s true. Ask any writer to name his or her influences, and you won’t be able to get that writer to shut up.
Go to any blog offering advice on writing a certain genre, and the advice-giver will tell you to read books in that genre–a lot of books in that genre.
Writers produce the written word. If we don’t become fluent in the written word by reading lots of examples, how can we become fluent in our writing? Yes, we become skilled in writing by practicing our craft–write, write, write. But that practice rests in the arms of a world of books.
Yesterday, I visited the Tucson Festival of Books, which began in 2009 and has grown in such a short time to one of the largest book festivals. And the thousands of visitors testified to this comforting fact: the book is not dead.
What a rush to walk by so many tents belonging to used book stores, small presses, and individual authors. I wanted to hear Ana Castillo, whose novel, So Far from God, is one I admire and enjoy. Castillo read a chapter from that novel (her reading voice captivates) and answered questions. At the book signing afterwards, I asked her what she would tell my students to convince them to read: “I can’t tell them anything you haven’t already told them. Reading opens up the world for you. It did for me.”
At the University of Arizona bookstore tent, I happened by a young adult novel and had to buy it. It’s Gabi, a Girl in Pieces, and in her dedication, the author, Isabel Quintero, writes this: “En primero: para la persona who first read to me and taught me that words mattered and changed you. Gracías Mamá.”
The local NPR station interviewed J. A. Jance, the prolific mystery writer (another author at the Festival of Books), and she named her second-grade teacher as her inspiration for becoming a bookworm. Jance described shelves and shelves of books under a window in Mrs. Spangler’s classroom and how she gravitated towards the Wizard of Oz books. While her classmates wanted to be the magician behind the curtain, Jance said she wanted to be Frank Baum, the wizard behind the words.
Both these writers faced challenges. Jance describes a male creative writing professor at the University of Arizona who denied Jance entrance into his class because “Women become teachers and nurses. Boys become writers.” Castillo said she’s a self-taught writer. Although she believes in the power of education, she didn’t study English or Spanish: “I thought that if I went into English, they would tell me I couldn’t write English. I thought if I went into Spanish, they would tell me I couldn’t write Spanish.”
Both writers overcame those challenges to become hugely successful. With over 50 books published, Jance said in her interview that it’s no accident the “crazed killer” in her first hardback was a professor of creative writing. Castillo’s language melds her English and Spanish word-artistry. Her younger self, caught in that neither-nor split many multilingual and multicultural writers in the U.S. face, bloomed into a both-and embracing of all linguistic heritages. (See my posting on “writing when English is not your mother tongue.”)
If you want to write, then read, read, read.
As Castillo says, “Reading opens up the world for you.”