“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” — Stephen King
In King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he explains how important it is to be continually reading if you want to get serious about writing.
I couldn’t agree more.
The bulk of my education about the English language came from the act of reading.
And I’m not talking about assigned school-work. I’m talking about round-the-clock reading for fun.
When I was a young child, my mom would endlessly read books to me from the local library. She was a teacher in her home country, and is a trained early childhood educator here in Canada, so she’s always appreciated the value of learning.
As soon as I could read independently, I inhaled books to no end.
In elementary school, I’d bring home a backpack full of books I’d borrowed from the classroom — every single night.
At six years old, my teacher remarked that I was already reading at a fifth-grade level. And I didn’t stop there.
I entered and won my local library’s creative writing contests as soon as I was old enough to enter.
By the age of thirteen, I had already won a national youth literary contest, given a paid poetry reading at the reception, and gotten a publishing credit out of the whole thing.
None of this happened by accident.
Why reading is your secret weapon as a creative writer
Fast-forward to today, and I’ve won more literary contests, been published widely in magazines/journals, and written two books for my publisher.
All of these accomplishments started from one habit: regularly reading for fun.
So if you want to embark on a creative writing career, it’s crucial that you start reading.
Read whatever you can get your hands on: poetry, novels, non-fiction.
Every genre has something different to teach you; poetry teaches brevity and emotion; fiction teaches world-building; non-fiction teaches research skills.
And you don’t need to spend a ton of money. Check out your local library (or college’s library) to start.
Used book stores are also gold-mines for finding affordable new reads.
If you have the cash to buy lots of new books, go for it — but don’t feel obligated.
Writing poetry in particular
The bulk of my career has been as a professional poet. Although I dabble in creative non-fiction and do plenty of client work, poetry is my niche.
For poetry especially, you really need to expose yourself to different styles. Read the classics. Read new poetry. Read formal poetry. Read experimental poetry.
Poetry is so incredibly open-ended — unlike fiction, there really aren’t any rigid guidelines for writing it.
You can write a poem that’s one word long, or you can write a poem that’s 1,000 words long. You can have a title — or not. Poets have the freedom to basically do whatever we want.
But how can you find your unique style if you’re not a seasoned pro? Just keep reading.
Eventually, you’ll stumble upon poets that change your life. (For me, those include authors like Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski.)
You’ll find poets that write about things you care about. You’ll find poets that have incredible styles — the kind you’d like to emulate.
But you’ll also find authors whose work you really hate (for me, that includes ‘Instagram poets’ like Rupi Kaur). And that’s good, too! It’s all part of the process.
You need to dip your toes into many different types of writing — otherwise, you won’t know what you like and dislike.
Reading is a constant process of learning new things about the world (and about your personal taste).
Get inspired, but don’t copy
It’s great to read other poets to get inspired. But don’t try to outright copy another writer’s style. That’s pointless and uninteresting.
There’s no use trying to be the next Shakespeare — because you aren’t Shakespeare.
Embrace who you are: your identity, your life experiences, your preferences, and your thoughts. Look to other writers for influence, but don’t try to imitate them.
Keep reading and keep writing new work. The two practices will feed into each other.
So, always keep a new book on your bedside table.
Constantly seek new literature to read.
And think of reading as a prerequisite for creating great work.
As always, thanks for reading my Writing Advice column here on my blog.
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