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If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader.
My friend Dan Chaon (author of Stay Awake) illustrates the problem with modern lit: everybody wants to be a writer, and nobody wants to be a reader.
The writing community is full of lame-o people who want to be published in journals even though they don’t read the magazines that they want to be published in. These people deserve the rejections that they will undoubtedly receive, and no one should feel sorry for them when they cry about how they can’t get anyone to accept their stories.
As a teacher, he runs into a lot of what I call the “I like to write, but I don’t like to read“ students:
[I]t has surprised me, over the years, how few of my creative writing students have made any effort to engage with the community that they supposedly want to be a part of.”
He then offers up a really great analogy: students who want to be rock star musicians.
They have started a band, and they are spending their weekends and off hours writing songs and practicing. Without fail, these kids know everything there is to know about new music. They are listening all the time—they can discourse on Bob Dylan as easily as they can talk about the new e.p. from a new band from Little Rock, Arkansas, or wherever, and they have a whole hard drive full of demos from obscure artists that they have downloaded from the internet.
I wish that my students who want to be fiction writers were similarly engaged. But when I ask them what they’ve read recently, they frequently only manage to cough up the most obvious, high profile examples. What if my rock star students had only heard of …um….The Beatles? We listened to them in my Rock Music Class in high school. And…. And Justin Timberlake? And, uh, yeah, there’s that one band, My Chemical Romance, I heard one of their songs once.
How awful would that be?
Young writers, if you want to be rock stars, you have to read.
It bears repeating: if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first.
Every writer I know worth their salt is a voracious reader, and many of them have the opposite attitude of the students mentioned above, summed up here by William Giraldi: “I don’t enjoy writing. I enjoy reading.”
See also: Blake Butler’s call to “Be an open node,” where he talks about concrete ways you can join the literary community:
(1) When you read something you like, in any form, write the author and tell them.
(2) Write reviews of books you like… You can’t expect to be recognized for your work if you aren’t recognizing others for their work. Open the doors.
(3) Interview writers… I have done this for years and have made friends by doing it, have ‘opened doors’ so to speak: in other words, by helping others, you are also helping yourself.
(4) If you have free time, start an online journal. Start a blog, a review, an anything. If you don’t know how I’ll help you. Say stuff. Mean what you say.
(5) If you have a journal already, respond faster. Pay attention to your inbox.
Filed under: reading
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