I’ve never been a voracious reader. In my guest post on Unleashing Readers, I talk about how reading has always been a struggle for me. As a child, I wanted to read, but couldn’t. I don’t mean that I couldn’t read (early testing deemed me an average, competent reader), I mean that I couldn’t stay engaged with the words on the page. I improved a good deal over the years, but I still don’t have a bottomless appetite for reading. Despite the general expectation that writers should read excessively, I managed to become a writer.
While pursuing my writing career, my reduced reading load was always a source of anxiety for me. Whenever I was around literary types they would always rattle off a long list of well-known or even obscure authors and books. When I was in my twenties I would often nod passively whenever anyone asked me if I knew of this author or that book. I felt smaller around people who used big words, too. Now that I’m older, I don’t lie or acquiesce. I’ll say ‘nope’ if I haven’t heard of whatever someone is talking about, and my vocabulary has improved greatly. I still don’t advertise my under-read nature, though. I haven’t figured out how to talk about it so that people will still take me seriously as a writer.
So how did I manage to become a writer despite my reading habits? I’ll break it down into three general contributions: I voraciously consume story in other forms, I lived an adventurous life, and after surviving a debilitating disease, I decided what the hell, I’m gonna go for it and get my MFA in creative writing.
In the age of technology there are many different ways to consume story, such as movies/TV, video games, and the Internet. Also, my family is filled with talented storytellers that I’ve always loved to hang around. I consumed many stories this way, digested them, and folded the most appealing content into my imaginative play. After college, instead of locking myself in a room every day and forcing myself to read and write, I moved to Puerto Rico and followed around free-range monkeys for a behavioral research project. When that experience ended, I moved state to state for several years, from South Carolina to DC, from Massachusetts to Maryland. Every move was an adventure, and I have unique experiences because of it. And I have to say, surviving a near death experience or two will make career decisions seem way less scary. After I hit rock bottom I managed to pick myself up, brush myself off, and go after my MFA in creative writing like it was a walk in the park.
Surprisingly, there are advantages to being a writer who doesn’t read a ton. Most importantly, I write more original content. My book The Alchemist’s Theorem is considered high fantasy. I don’t read high fantasy. I’ve tried but I don’t like other peoples’ made up names. Because of this, I don’t really know what high fantasy novels are generally like, so I don’t have other author’s work influencing my work to the point of making it generic. Whenever I read through my manuscript I see random experiences of my life informing the story instead, and it’s so rewarding.
I still think reading is important to my writing career. Whenever I go too long without reading I start to become very inarticulate. I tried to say that to Brooks once and what came out was, “I’m hard with words.” Reading also helps me improve upon my writing skills and my vocabulary, but having an editor and an MFA also help my writing, and just asking people what the big words they use mean really helps definitions stick.
A great story will still influence my work. There is a concept in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series that I am stealing for one of my own novels. The most important thing reading does for me, though, is that it helps inform my emotions and intellect. Reading about other peoples’ or characters’ experiences helps me work through my own. And there are a number of books that have contributed to making me the person I am today.
So I think reading is an important part of life for many different reasons. What’s important is that we as individuals have the space, time, and comfort to figure out what reading means to us and the best way to go about it so that it is something that makes us happy and better, not anxious and distressed.