When Reading is Writing

Living as a Writer Series

I touched on this in my post, When not Writing is Writing but I wanted to expand on how reading is crucial to writing.

The often repeated advice that you must read if you wish to write is not wrong. At its most basic level, authors need to read to keep up with their genre. What’s been written before and what’s being written now. Reading widely outside our genre also feeds the creativity engine.

Reading for the fun of it

We became writers because we love books and reading. It’s a pleasant experience. Science supports this. Recent studies have shown how reading changes our brain activity. This article highlights the biggest ones. For writers these three have particular importance:

  • Increased brain connectivity helps us make connections. Seeing possible connections in our own work is critical.
  • Increased empathy helps us create empathetic characters. When we experience the effect, we can study it and learn how it works.
  • Expanding our memory capacity allows us to keep more at our recall.

Time for reading is part of the job

I’ve heard working writers recently lamenting how they’ve been so busy they’ve neglected reading—and they felt it. It’s easy to push reading down the list of priorities of paying work, family, and sleep. But just like we need to take time to improve our craft, reading needs to be a regular practice. In fact, reading improves our craft even if we aren’t reading a book on writing. Besides, reading is fun.

What are you reading?


Writing and Memory

Living as a Writer Series

Each time I visit my mother we pour through memorabilia my grandparents left behind. There is a huge trove of boxes from my father’s mother. Recently we found my great grandmother’s scrapbook of recipes, newspaper clippings, obituaries, birthday cards, letters and more. All bound and pasted into a book that was once something else. She just pasted over the printed pages. Her collection dates from before 1910 and goes through about 1923.

Later, we talked about my mother’s side of the family, and I realized I have nothing written or collected about her life other than pictures with no context. What was it like when her estranged father showed up at the door when she was a young child? Who were her friends? What was high-school like for her? She said she’d been thinking about how to write something like an autobiography but didn’t know how to start.

Memories occur out of order.

I told her to just write. When something hit her, just write it in a notebook. It didn’t have to be in order. Selfishly, I don’t care about the order, I just wanted the memories and context around events preserved. 

Memories are fleeting. They come somewhat randomly, triggered by nearly anything. The nature of memories is a theme in my upcoming novel. I’m fascinated by the shape and expression of memory. Which ones get remembered and which ones buried. One of my fears is losing those I cherish most.

Well, my mother has taken my advice and apparently has a lot of memories in her notebook. She asked me what she should do with them. She was thinking of typing them into a Word doc. It occurred to me that a blog would actually be a better place. Aside from the files not being tied to a computer that will one day die, or using cloud storage that someone will have to get access to, a blog allows her to share her memories with the family now, in real time, and we can comment and add to it.

Now I have to set up a blog for her and teach her how to access and use it, but I think she will like what it can do to share her memories now, when she can enjoy our reactions to them.

Which leads me to ask, have you shared the writing life with a non-writer?


When Not Writing is Writing

Living as a Writer Series

This topic came up several times this week; probably as people get ready for #NaNoWriMo. A question like: if I go for a walk but think about my characters, can I count that as writing? Or: I’m reading about writing so that counts too, right?

Yes. Reading about writing, thinking about your characters, plot, or story while doing anything else is writing.

Writers get so hung up on counting words to judge how much work they’ve accomplished, perhaps because of #NaNoWriMo and its focus on words per day. But that only works for one phase of the writing process; the building/creating or additive phase which is the core of NaNo. Even then measuring how many chapters you have completed might be a better measure depending on the book you’re writing.

In the editing phase you could count how many words you removed, or sentences you edited.

But writing a story or a poem is not just about how many words. The process includes thinking about the story. You can’t measure that unless you’re counting how many hours you spend pondering. Writers need to think long and deeply about their stories—even when the story is not in front of them. Yes walking, jogging, showering, or sitting on a park bench deeply considering your story counts as writing.

Inspiration is the writer’s most important skill. Yes, it’s a skill to find, recognize, and form inspiration into story. Like all skills it takes practice. Reading, hiking, travel, whatever gets your creative juices going is part of writing.

Reading about craft, or attending a workshop or conference is also writing. As writers, the process consumes us. That may sound obsessive and unhealthy (and sometimes, like any demanding job, it can be) but so much of writing is internalizing what we experience or observe others experiencing. Then we can relate those experiences and emotions authentically through story.

Don’t feel guilty about time spent away from the computer or page. We write all the time. It’s all good.