“Yeah, um, I don’t like to read.”

ConversationsI’m not that good at starting them. Some people might think I’m odd, but one of the questions I might ask a stranger is what she or he is reading. I was at a writing group one time, and met a girl who was close to my age. She had just read an excerpt from her fiction short story. Asking for her reading preference didn’t seem unusual to me, especially because we were in a writing environment, but then she laughed shortly and answered:

“Yeah, um, I don’t like to read.”

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I tried hiding my shock, but I’m told that my emotions show.

In general I’m not bothered by people who don’t like to read. It’s perfectly fine for people to consume information through a different medium. But it doesn’t make sense to me when I hear that a writer dislikes reading. For my entire life, reading and writing have always gone hand in hand.

Let me explain how I started writing. I read the Harry Potter series over and over again, and in between each book release I created elaborate stories involving Rowling’s characters (aka, fanfiction). Eventually, I realized that my plots involved little to no magic, and my characters were unlike the characters within Rowling’s pages, so I knew that I’d outgrown the Harry Potter world, and needed to create my own. I started writing because I liked reading so much and I wanted different things to read.

I can say that one of my main sources of inspiration stems from the books I read (Harry Potter is only one example). When I can’t think of anything to write, I find refuge in books. True, there have been times when I purposely stopped reading. I foolishly convinced myself that I should focus on my own writing, that I should create sentences and stories, not absorb them. I also worried that by reading and writing at the same time I might accidentally compose a sentence that sounds good, only to realize I had read it in someone else’s work. However, I’ve learned that inspiration doesn’t mean plagiarism (well, to Shia LaBeouf it might). It’s taking one small, compressed detail in an existing work and expanding it into a completely different piece.

Take postmodern literature for example. Wide Sargasso Sea explores the life of a character who later becomes the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre. You can also consider more irreverent titles like Jane Slayre, which re-imagines the title character as a demon-slaying heroine. While still relying on the bare bones of Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys and Sherri Browning Erwin‘s novels created something different from the original story.

Additionally, writers who read have a better sense of their place in the spectrum of existing writers, and this awareness helps when you’re trying to establish your writing career. In publishing, there’s something called a Hollywood formula. When pitching a book in a letter, sometimes it’s easiest to write, “This book is such and such meets such and such.” Inception meets 10 Things I Hate About You. Um, well, that might be a weird description. I don’t even know how to make sense of that . . . I hope you get my point. Just one sentence can help an editor understand the content of your work, but it’s near impossible to make comparisons without possessing knowledge of those who are deemed great writers in your genre.

By reading, writers also gain literary aspirations. Be jealous of great writers! I’m constantly envious of today’s writers; I’ve read works from storytellers like Kate Milliken and Denis Johnson, and I think, “Damn. These people are unbelievably good.” I endeavor to be like them one daynot for the fame, but for the ability to evoke powerful, lasting emotions in strangers. People often say that you learn a lot from life, but I’ve learned so much from writers. (I guess what I’m saying is redundant because writers essentially mold life and its peculiarities into plausible words and sentences). I learned about the economy in writing from Raymond Carver, the unnecessary existence of form and punctuation from José Saramago, and the art of writing fascinating disturbed characters from Vladimir Nabokov, Ian McEwan, and Bret Easton Ellis.

If I could meet this non-reader writer againdespite the size of New York, it’s still a possibilityI’d encourage her to read more and read well, and perhaps leave her with this quote from Stephen King regarding the synergy between reading and writing:

“The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor. . . .” (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

I’m interested to see which books have influenced writers the most. I’m starting a page called A Writer’s Toolbox, and would love to hear your suggestions. Comment or answer the poll below!

In search of a writing community

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Oh wow! Writers in their natural habitats!

In a previous blog post, I wrote about loneliness and the transition from college life to semi-adult life. Short summary: It wasn’t going very well. My way of coping, of abating that loneliness, was to write. Interestingly enough, after I published that post, a stranger on Twitter suggested that writing could also be the cause of loneliness. I suppose this person is half-right; when you’re doing something you love, you’re in the moment, and you can forget where you are. But I don’t want writing to prevent me from meeting people; I decided that writing should help me meet people.

I immediately began my search for writing groups in NYC and Brooklyn, and let me tell you: The quest was exhausting. I left my first meeting feeling utterly disappointed. I was the youngest person in attendance, and felt as if the older members devalued my opinions. They were also creepy.

Then I attended a Gotham Writers’ Workshop course in downtown Brooklyn, which turned out to be a much better experience. I felt included—perhaps it was because the instructor sought to make all writers feel comfortable. Despite this, I’m not sure I’d want to pay $20 for another course. The instructor only allowed us to offer positive feedback. I’m all for positive energy, but I wonder how we’ll improve as writers if we receive only positive feedback. Perhaps I am used to seeing my writing be brutally torn apart, thanks to my journalism experience (starting with the time I got a 76 on my first journalism assignment in Dr. Simon’s freshman news writing class…but that doesn’t really matter…)

Anyways, guys, I’ve finally found a writers’ group. It’s been around for twelve years, with a solid core and a welcoming attitude toward newer members like moi. I’ve attended four meetings so far, recently returning from a session last night, and I feel like I can belong here eventually. I really enjoyed meeting and talking to the other writers. There’s a writer who is a financial analyst by day and a horror screenwriter by night, a former Silicon Valley techie working on a (surprise!) technology thriller, and a librarian writing the next big teen novel (sans vampires).

Here’s the drill: we chat for a few minutes and then take an hour to work on our writing. After the host says stop, we spend two and a half hours reading and critiquing each other’s works. Three types of readers usually show up to these meetings. There are the immediate volunteers. This person is confident enough to be the first to read. Or, this person is overly confident and likes the sound of his or her own voice (ew). There are the reluctant sharers. They look around and see no one volunteering. They decide, after a sigh, to read. There are the oh-god-don’t-look-at-me non-readers. They usually sit in the corner and frantically shake their heads when asked to read. They don’t share in fear that they might be horrible—but by doing this, they might be brilliant writers, but we’d never know it.

I can be any of these three types of people, but I tend to be the reluctant reader. I’ve always been a self-conscious speaker, because I stumble over my words. Good thing I can practice at these meetings! It actually helps to listen to myself. For example, if I struggle with a sentence, I make sure to mark the spot and see if I can smooth it out later.

As much as I love writing and reading my work, my favorite part is the feedback session. Over the years I’ve received countless writing advice from trustworthy writers, and I like to absorb all that I can to become a better writer. Naturally, I want other writers to feel like they’re receiving constructive feedback—something they can use and not just think about. At the last group meeting, our critique got intensely detailed. For about twenty minutes, we pondered if it was right for a particular character to drink Bass Pale Ale. Yes, I know how silly that sounds, but we were all serious! Is this character really a Bass guy? Or would he drink Guinness? Decisions, decisions (As a non-drinker, I tried to play along).

I do worry, however, that some feedback will go unheard. Writers can’t help but feel a small stab whenever they receive critiques. There are some who can swallow their pride, and there are others who feel the need to defend their every word. I’m sure people have felt the frustration of explaining a critique only to find a writer completely intolerant to the idea that maybe – just maybe – they have committed a fault in their writing. Because of this, I sometimes prefer writing feedback, rather than giving it to the person upfront (yay reader’s reports!)

I’m so excited for more writing sessions!

In effort to become more social on the web (I hear writers need to do that these days), here’s a question to end this post: writers, what do you think of writers’ groups?