In honour of World Book Day here’s a blog I wrote for the wonderful novelist, Bethany Dawson’s blog (www.storiesbybethany.blogspot.com) last year about how important books have been to my development as a writer. I hope you enjoy it and that you’re in your own small corner of the world devouring a good book today.
“Read to Write”
In “Queen Jane Approximately” Dylan sings, when “you want someone you don’t have to speak to,” and, over the years, books have become that very solitary someone for me. I like books. Mostly I prefer the company of books to people. Books don’t tell me what to think. Books don’t make assumptions. They leave space between each sentence for my imagination to get in. There will never be enough time for all the books worth reading.
I cut my teeth on Enid Blyton and by the unseemly age of eight had progressed to Agatha Christie and other terribly unsuitable adult reads. Each childhood summer I pooled the Carsons’ library tickets and trailed thirty books to France, ignoring the scenic scenery as I devoured paperback adventures in the back seat of our Citroen Bluebird. I read indiscriminately and without discipline, incapable of saving a good read for later. I did not read to escape. I only ever read for company; for the comfort and provocation which came with realizing I wasn’t the only one with stories stuck behind my teeth.
I’ve never grown tired of books and books have never grown tired of me. A handful are old friends now. They re-appear on my bedside table with charming regularity; chicken soup for an over-read soul. Others have come and gone, serving me well in certain seasons and afterwards shuffling to the back of the bookshelf like last year’s outgrown slippers. Recommended by bookish friends, the last decade has allowed me to make acquaintance with a holy host of previously unknown favourites: Capote, Carver, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers to name but a few. Last year I read 110 books. This year I’m aiming for 120.
Contrary to popular belief I don’t just read. By day I am arts officer at a local music venue. By night, weekend, bank holiday and extremely early morning I am a novelist. Over the last three years I have trundled out 100,000 words in ninety minute sessions. I scribble when I can and dream of a painless, easily-curable illness which will leave me bedridden and able to write, guilt-free, for approximately three months. I write long things and have very little spare time. Reading, in such vast quantities, often seems like an unnecessary indulgence and yet I know my writing would suffer if I didn’t.
When I first started writing I only read writers who wrote like me. This made me feel comfortable and affirmed, part of some great tradition of dribbly, over-romantic short story writers who accepted my work, exactly the way it was, unedited. I was a sloppy writer, scared of structure, editing and even capital letters. Though comfortable, reading people who wrote like me was about as useful as sharpening my pencil on a bath towel. In 2007 someone gave me a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and said, “read this and you’ll never write the same way again.” Raymond Carver saved my writing.
I learnt people from Carver. I envied the way he observed his characters so unflinchingly. I admired his dialogue which is brutally sparse and yet incredibly stylized. I drew comfort from the fact that the editor’s guillotine was the driving force in propelling Carver from mundane to marvellous. Mostly I was cheered by Carver’s earlier stories; mediocre at best and encouraging proof that literary geniuses are not born but whittled down to the bare bones of their brilliance.
Later, as I forced myself to read outside my comfort zone, I discovered critical friends on a thousand different shelves. I read as much and as often as I could. I read to learn. I read to be challenged and inspired; chastised when necessary. I read to learn the rules so they could later be applied or broken, safe in the knowledge that I understood where my words were coming from. I read, and will not give up on reading, because stories are essentially provocative; each well-strung sentence inspiring a story in response.