This came across my Facebook feed today:
“So i have been thinking lately. Why is it that writers are expected to read to become better at writing. I mean really if you want to become better at something more often then not you have to do it to get better at it. Painters paint blacksmiths create stuff, dancers dance. But yet writers are expected to read rather then write. So my question is why?”
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first.
The premise that other professions just burst full-blown from the head of Zeus is patently false. An apprentice blacksmith doesn’t just pick up a hammer and start making ornate creations right out of the gate.
You know what apprenticing blacksmiths make? Nails. Basic, straightforward, made-a-bajillion-times-before nails. They make a lot of them, and then, when they’ve learned how to make really terrific nails, they might be allowed to make a basic horseshoe, or a butter knife.
You know what else they do? They watch older, more experienced blacksmiths make more complicated stuff. They study the physical movements of better blacksmiths. They go to museums and craft fairs, and study the objects that other blacksmiths make, in order to see what the possibilities are.
You know what painters do? They go to art museums and look at paintings by other artists, and study them to see how the effects that painter used might make a painting better or worse or different.
And dancers? You’ve never met a more addicted-to-watching-other-dancers group than professional dancers. They will do three hours of ballet class in the morning, dance in a matinee performance at 2pm, and then spend an hour on the London Underground and cough up ridiculous prices for SRO tickets just to see a traveling rep company from another country dance a ballet they themselves have just danced in that same afternoon.
But it isn’t the truth, or even the mechanics, of this that matters. It’s what lies beneath.
You aren’t a writer if you don’t love to read.
Every real musician I have ever known has adored music, been obsessed by music, has listened to music from every era and genre and culture they can find – absorbing the feel, the sound, the technical chops of every other musician. They know that the wider they cast their net, the more skills they will be aware of and be able to master. But more than that: they love music. They are endlessly fascinated by music, in all its forms and styles.
Every visual artist worth their salt studies art history – in depth. They have that burning need to know what has been done, and how. They have that same need to grasp how wide the field is, and what has happened before, to know the visual language of their craft, with the instinctive understanding that these are the tools they will need to create something new. And beyond that is the incredible delight in seeing what else is out there and the sheer enjoyment of their chosen craft in motion – the love of the infinite variety of human experience made tangible.
Dancers, blacksmiths, haute cuisine chefs – they all don’t just “need” to know what’s out there, what’s been done and what might be done. They long for it. They ache for it.
They dream dance or fire or perfect slices of marinated tuna steak. And they search out the past and present of their chosen profession, and learn it all: the highs, the lows, the extremes and the averages, incorporating everything they can into their own experience and understanding, in order to create something new and wholly their own.
They HUNGER for it. It’s the air they need to breathe, it’s their water in the desert.
If the writing of others isn’t meat and drink to you – if reading isn’t a lifeline for your soul – if seeing how others play with words upon a page isn’t the most interesting and entertaining thing you can think of – then you aren’t a writer.
You might publish some books. You might even sell them.
But deep down inside your soul, you are not a writer.