Is Reading Really the Most Important Thing?

Posted by @ 11:00 am on July 28th, 2010

I have been really enjoying the interesting and insightful blog posts being written by the editors of Uncanny Valley. In a recent post, frequent HTMLGIANT commenter and Uncanny Valley co-editor Mike Meginnis offered notes on teaching an introductory creative writing class. He says really smart, practical things about teaching creative writing but I’ve been mulling over his first note quite a bit. He says, “1. Intro to CW should be more about ways of reading than ways of writing.” The more I think about this statement, the more I wonder if we rely too heavily on the notion that the best writers are the best readers. I think we offer this kind of advice more out of reflex than anything else. Hear me out. There is ample evidence that to write well, one must read well. Reading and learning how to read critically, exposes us to different writing styles, voices, and techniques. We can study styles we want to emulate. We can be challenged. We can see examples of how we want not to write. I cannot deny that some of my best writing instruction has come from reading everything I can get my hands on.

That said, I firmly believe while reading is important, it is not more important than writing and increasingly I worry we are sacrificing the practice of writing for young writers at the altar of reading. Without fail, almost every writer who is asked about what writers need to do to improve their craft states, first and foremost, that writers need to read. I’ve stated this myself, quite a few times, but either we’re teaching writing or we’re teaching reading and to have a creative writing class where writing is not foregrounded gets me thinking. Why isn’t it writing that is most important? Why don’t we say that to be a great writer, you need to, well, write?

My very first writing teacher was a man named Rex McGuinn, a poet who taught English at my high school. He he loved teaching and he loved writing and words. I don’t remember most of my teachers but I still remember Mr. McGuinn. On the first day of class he told us that to become good writers we needed, more than anything, to write. He insisted we write every day. Lots of writing teachers impart the importance of writing every day but Rex McGuinn was the first writer and teacher to tell me that. He was so supportive of our youthful writing and he was supportive of me, in particular. He told me I was going to be a great writer someday, before I could even dream of thinking of myself as a writer. I have no idea what he saw in me at fourteen because my writing back then was as ridiculous as you might expect it to be, but he saw something and he nurtured it by encouraging me to write, write and then write some more. Even though I took his class a long time ago, on days when I am feeling lazy, I think of Mr. McGuinn reminding me to write every day and because sadly, he passed away at quite a young age, I also feel like maybe he’s watching me and clucking his tongue if I don’t write every day. If I had to trace the genealogy of why I believe writing is as important as reading for young writers, it would begin with my sophomore English teacher.

The importance of writing itself cannot be discounted even and perhaps especially for beginning writers. On the first day of class, regardless of the type of writing I’m teaching, I tell my students that while we’ll be doing lots of different things throughout the semester including reading and developing critical awareness, what we’re going to do most is write—we’r going to write a great deal. There are often groans when students hear this and they begin to offer up all the reasons why they will not be able to write a lot or why they are bad writers or why they hate writing and those attitudes are precisely why I prioritize the very act of writing in my classes. So often, writing intimidates students, particularly freshmen and sophomores. The sooner they realize they have no choice but to write, the sooner they can feel more at ease with the writing process, at least in theory. Most of the time, this theory bears out.

The quality of writing may not always be “good” but at least students are developing that writing muscle and getting into the practice of writing for an audience, or an assignment/task, or for themselves. Students may never write again when they leave my class but for a few months, writing is the priority. I hate to make a cheesy analogy but learning to write is very much like getting in shape–in the beginning, you’re going to be miserable and out of shape and making a mess of things but eventually, you develop stamina and your body adapts and you’re more capable. How can students develop that muscle, that stamina, that capability when reading and not writing is the priority?  Meginnis says, “There are essentially two goals in an intro class: waking students up to the possibility that they might enjoy writing, and teaching them a critical vocabulary through which they might become better readers in their own lives and, potentially, in future (workshop-oriented) classes.” I’m not sure it’s my job to teach students how to read and I don’t know if I care whether or not they enjoy writing. I talk about what it means to read critically and what students should look for in texts. I hope they enjoy writing but that’s such a personal preference and I’m not a salesperson beyond bringing a great deal of enthusiasm for writing to the classroom each day. If those are the two goals of a intro class, where is the place for putting one foot in front of the other and teaching students what it means to actually put a story (or any kind of writing for that matter) together? An intro class should have one goal–to teach students to write–it is how we achieve that goal that is subjective. Teaching students to read and introducing them to the possibility that writing might be enjoyable are practices that should function in service of the primary goal of writing, writing, writing. I believe in teaching students to put a word on the page and then another and then another until those words start to become something more.

What would (or do) you prioritize in introductory writing classes? Is reading the most important thing for the growth of a great writer?

PS: Why Don Draper? Don Draper is delightful and delicious and he knows how to sit so well. He is real.

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