July 28th, 2010 / 11:00 am
Craft Notes

Is Reading Really the Most Important Thing?

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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231 Comments

  1. Caca Coup

      I feel like this argument is wrongly posited. By the looks of things everybody seems to agree that young writers should be writing AND reading a lot, and widely, with a mind for heterogeneity, the canonical and the non-canonical. Roxane, I agree that a “common vocab” on a certain new canon, if you will, is the wrong way to look at the importance of reading for writers. But Lily, I’m not sure reading for stealing is the best method either. I think the stealing happens unconciously, or by accident. I don’t have anything against the appropriation of writerly techniques, nor the application of myriad writerly techniques. What I have reservations for is the reading for the purpose of self-betterment as a writer. I think writers by nature should be seeking out depths, novelties and distinctions of experience, in whatever mode this eventuates. So, what is so lacking for me on this thread is the importance of a visual literacy for writers, an aural sensitivity, heightened sensitivity to the tangible etc. Why are we not talking about music or cinema or visual arts here? I understand the immediate concern was that binary of writers having to write a lot or read a lot, but I can see failures in both in published authors. Chuck Palahniuk writes too much, his style is so well refined I know precisely where his next adjective will be. Ezra Pound read too much, of being a genius I wouldn’t dare deprive him but most of us would agree aspects of his poetry are like a tour in his library. And you know I’m being facetious by saying ‘read too much’ and ‘wrote too much’, it’s more that the evidence of this reading and this writing have come to overflow the event of the written work itself.

      So, I think what this argument highlights are the failures of an ambitious early writer, the need to be writing through a richness of corporeal (lived) and incorporeal experience (represented), and the importance of practice and experimentation for an early writer. And, of course, the failures of wanting to be a writer rather than wanting to write. I would just like to emphasise the importance for writers to be writing because of a compulsion, because there is something they’ve experienced or read or heard that desires to be accounted for, to be expressed and given life as a new thing, added to the event of your writing. It should be at the limit of sense, an interface as soft as a tympanum and as expressive as a vocal cord. This is what I believe some are talking about above when they speak about the line between writing and reading blurring.

  2. George

      It’s not a question of which, re reading or writing. It’s both reading AND writing.

      A writer doesn’t need to read everything that was ever written from Beowulf onward, but a person who has read hardly anything (which may be more and more common lately) is in for a rude awakening if she or he expects to sit down and, through nothing but repetition, write works that other people would consider worth reading.

      Further, I would extend this statement to include those in university writing classes, because without a varied background in reading books–fiction, nonfiction, short stories, or other–a would-be writer is starting out at a severe disadvantage. Floating free and lost, rather than on the firmer footing of the linguistic and narrative learning that only years of reading can provide.

      Ideally, one would not only have a solid background in reading books (which of course teaches us, if only at the subconscious level, how language works in written form), but also an aptitude for writing (which the universities can only develop, not provide in full) before setting out to learn the craft of writing.

      Independent reading, in addition to whatever is forced on us through schoolwork, is essential. Reading is the brick and mortar that pave the road toward being a writer. Reading books others have written through the years shows us where we have been, where we are, and (hopefully) where we’re going.

  3. King Kong Bundy

      Think George still tears apart turnbuckles with his teeth?

  4. Steven Augustine
  5. deadgod

      An Unsurprising Path of Thought

      The first person who reads what you write will (probably) be – yourself. You want to be an expert reader of your own writing, so as to be able to show other people what you most want them to read (that you wrote).

      So becoming clever – or at least, clearer to yourself – at reading is a useful way to become more skilled at writing what you want to show other people – useful and, (in this case) by virtue of an equiprimordial entwinement, pleasurable.

      Reading other people’s writing, especially in a critical way/environment, is a helpful – I think: ineluctably an effective – way for you to become a more expert editor of your writing.

      (Not that “reading” is the only factor in the composition and mutation of your literary self, but reading is a way you can cultivate – by yourself and with support/guidance/resistance – that self, that activity, with, among other pleasures, an increase in your control over what you write that you want other people to read.)

  6. Eric Beeny

      Great post, Roxane. Was that really Bill Knott commenting above? Bill Knott’s one of the most well-read writers I’ve ever come across (and, I feel, a great writer). And he quoted Nicanor Parra. A couple quotes from Knott and Parra respectively, not necessarily related to this post:

      “A single misprint in a survival manual kills everyone” – Bill Knott

      “…[W]e couldn’t even afford to drop dead / No wonder they called us the Immortals” – Nicanor Parra

  7. ryan

      Really? I think BASS is a joke. I would never advise a young writer to look at it.

  8. Guest

      Yeah, BASS jumped the sharked for me years ago. It’s the same damn people every year publishing in the same five journals that last accepted a solicited story 20 years ago. The “new voices” are almost always people who just landed book deals, which makes you wonder about the selection process….most of the stories are safe and don’t take chances. If you want to teach a young writer that writing can’t be fun, humorous, and playful, then assign BASS.

      Besides, think anthologies can terribly limiting for an instructor. It’s like feeding your students sampler platters instead of meals. I usually assign two full collections.

  9. Guest

      *I think anthologies can be terribly limiting for an instructor

  10. Guest

      **unsolicited

  11. darby

      “I would never advise a young writer to look at it.”

      why not? or, what’s jokey about it?

  12. Guest

      Jesus Christ, sorry for the typos in my last post. I shouldn’t type in the dark.

  13. Ryan Call

      i do like that anchor anthology for nonmajor intro to lit class stuff. i dont think id pick up bass though for reading/teaching. i dunno.

  14. zusya17

      “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.” – will faulk

  15. deadgod

      An Unsurprising Path of Thought

      The first person who reads what you write will (probably) be – yourself. You want to be an expert reader of your own writing, so as to be able to show other people what you most want them to read (that you wrote).

      So becoming clever – or at least, clearer to yourself – at reading is a useful way to become more skilled at writing what you want to show other people – useful and, (in this case) by virtue of an equiprimordial entwinement, pleasurable.

      Reading other people’s writing, especially in a critical way/environment, is a helpful – I think: ineluctably an effective – way for you to become a more expert editor of your writing.

      (Not that “reading” is the only factor in the composition and mutation of your literary self, but reading is a way you can cultivate – by yourself and with support/guidance/resistance – that self, that activity, with, among other pleasures, an increase in your control over what you write that you want other people to read.)

  16. Lily

      Hi Corey– Stealing by accident is perhaps the worst kind of stealing. Better to be conscientious of it, engage in conversation. What I mean by “stealing” is not plagiarism. I mean to read with discernment, with a keen eye. I mean, the opposite way of reading than is taught in an English lit course.

      This does mean I don’t believe people shouldn’t read broadly. Nor does it mean that they should only be reading. You make an excellent point about diversity. Writers–young writers, old writers, whatever–ought to go out, listen to music (of all types, go see a quartet play, then go to an indie rock show, then go see an experimental band), see art (again of all types, not just museums and galleries, but walls and tunnels filled with graffiti), etc etc. Yes, I agree. I agree.

  17. MFBomb

      Reading for historical breadth is often overlooked in these conversations. There’s so much emphasis on style and craft here, but not enough on history. A writer should have an understanding of literary history (see T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and The Individual Talent”).

      Too many contemporary writers act as if they’re doing something new or blazing a path, when what they’re doing isn’t as new as they think, and often shallow and historically disengaged.. An “avant garde” writer once laughed at me for my love of Victorian Lit, esp. Dickens. I was floored, because Dickens was a maniac and deliciously wild. Same for many other Victorian works.

  18. lily hoang

      Hi Corey– Stealing by accident is perhaps the worst kind of stealing. Better to be conscientious of it, engage in conversation. What I mean by “stealing” is not plagiarism. I mean to read with discernment, with a keen eye. I mean, the opposite way of reading than is taught in an English lit course.

      This does mean I don’t believe people shouldn’t read broadly. Nor does it mean that they should only be reading. You make an excellent point about diversity. Writers–young writers, old writers, whatever–ought to go out, listen to music (of all types, go see a quartet play, then go to an indie rock show, then go see an experimental band), see art (again of all types, not just museums and galleries, but walls and tunnels filled with graffiti), etc etc. Yes, I agree. I agree.

  19. Guest

      Reading for historical breadth is often overlooked in these conversations. There’s so much emphasis on style and craft here, but not enough on history. A writer should have an understanding of literary history (see T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and The Individual Talent”).

      Too many contemporary writers act as if they’re doing something new or blazing a path, when what they’re doing isn’t as new as they think, and often shallow and historically disengaged.. An “avant garde” writer once laughed at me for my love of Victorian Lit, esp. Dickens. I was floored, because Dickens was a maniac and deliciously wild. Same for many other Victorian works.

  20. ZZZIPP

      THERE IS A PILE OF PAPER OUTSIDE MY WINDOW AND EVERY NIGHT THE MAN WITH TINY HANDS FOR FEET CLIMBS IT AND SOON THE PILE WILL REACH THE WINDOW AND HE WILL COME IN AND MURDER ME.

  21. ZZZIPP

      THERE IS A PILE OF PAPER OUTSIDE MY WINDOW AND EVERY NIGHT THE MAN WITH TINY HANDS FOR FEET CLIMBS IT AND SOON THE PILE WILL REACH THE WINDOW AND HE WILL COME IN AND MURDER ME.

  22. Read how to? for internet, travel, gadgets

      Set Up Your Speakers…

      I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  23. Michael

      Not too much to contribute, as it’s true in the “disciplinary” “well-formed muscle” sense that writers should be reading all the time. And even though I am the type of young writer whose reading practices would horrify older writers, I am coming to understand this. However, I disagree that writing doesn’t come from nowhere, because if poetry truly comes close to alchemy, its origins should still be mysterious.

  24. Michael

      Not too much to contribute, as it’s true in the “disciplinary” “well-formed muscle” sense that writers should be reading all the time. And even though I am the type of young writer whose reading practices would horrify older writers, I am coming to understand this. However, I disagree that writing doesn’t come from nowhere, because if poetry truly comes close to alchemy, its origins should still be mysterious.

  25. d

      Listening is equally, if not more, important than reading. Listening to lots of different voices and ways of speaking, learning how people talk. Dialogue is usually the difference between good writing and incredible writing.

  26. d

      Listening is equally, if not more, important than reading. Listening to lots of different voices and ways of speaking, learning how people talk. Dialogue is usually the difference between good writing and incredible writing.

  27. zusya17

      sounds like you got yourself one them homunculus problems, boss.

  28. Steven Augustine

      call Wally Shawn!

  29. Steven Augustine

      call Wally Shawn!

  30. Roxane Gay

      There is a sleaziness about Don Draper but I find it terribly attractive.

  31. Mairead Byrne

      Am I the only person in America who think Don Draper is sleazy + weird?