Writers are often asked what writing advice they would give to aspiring authors, to younger versions of themselves, or to just about anyone who has a story to tell.
I always give the same answer, and I have to admit, it’s pretty simple. (Plus, it’s something most people who write love to do anyway.) It’s just one word and only a single syllable. It’s also one of my favorite words in the whole world.
Okay, I know that’s not the most insightful suggestion. It’s not particularly original. I mean, you’ve probably heard that piece of advice a dozen times before, right?
I could at least be more specific. Like by suggesting a particular author or genre or style or author. Here goes – not just one but three more specific reading suggestions:
1. When I was in college, one of my favorite teachers told me to read writers who wrote the type of writing that I hoped to do myself someday. And I learned a lot from that type of reading, and continue to do it every chance I get.
2. Or, when I’m feeling a bit blocked, there are a few authors whose writing never fails to inspire me – writers whose work I look up to, whose stories are usually very different from the stories I’m trying to tell, but who tell the stories so well that just reading them feels like a lesson. (Just a small sample of these writers: Joan Didion, Mary Gordon, Alice Hoffman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway.)
3. I also get very motivated to write by researching the project I’m working on. In the case of Faceless, that meant reading a lot of articles about face transplants and immunosuppressive drug regimens. I’m a research-happy writer, and reading information about the story I’m telling always gets me that much more excited to tell it.
But … at the end of the day, I keep coming back to that one syllable. Read. Because I really do believe that every single thing I’ve ever read has taught me something about how to tell a story – books that I’ve loved and books that weren’t necessarily my cup of tea. Novels and non-fiction. Essays and articles. Even – and I really mean this – textbooks. (There’s one psychology textbook I read over a decade ago that I still think about all the time.) Everything has something to teach you – or at least, I feel like it has something to teach me. Ideas can come from the most unexpected of places. A textbook taught me to insert humour into a dry topic. Magazine articles have prompted (sometimes completely unrelated) story ideas. Novel after novel has shown me beautiful and unexpected sentences. Essays have improved my vocabulary. For me, the essential thing isn’t always what I’m reading; sometimes it’s just enough that I’m reading. It’s still (and I suspect always will be) the piece of advice I most often give to myself about writing: just sit down and pick up a book.