When I made my first attempt at NaNoWriMo, I was living in Florence and was quite literally inspired every time I turned a corner. As I walked down the quaint streets, beautiful sentences would write themselves in my head.
One might assume, then, that my writing reflected the splendor of the city; elegant as the palaces I passed by each day. But one would be wrong to think that, as my writing was more influenced by my reading than my surroundings. In 2009 I was enthralled by Chuck Palahniuk, a creative writer whose mind fascinated me. How could he so eloquently write something so foul? Why does he create stunning characters, only to have them do or say something that makes readers’ stomachs turn?
As a devotee of this particular author, I spent my year Florence writing crude pieces that had nothing to do with the city. Readers would have never known that I was surrounded by such glory, as my writing was full of uncomfortable situations and characters that few, if any, could relate to. My voice was inauthentic and I knew it. Uninspired by my work, I abandoned fiction, not to pick it up again until 2016. When I began to write fiction again last winter, I was careful to consume the kind of books that would benefit – not detract from – my work. Now, I’m not saying nobody should read Chuck Palahniuk’s books – they’re great! But they weren’t the influence I needed at that time.
It was a hard lesson for me to learn, but now I have important tips for reading as a writer:
1) Be proactive
When I picked up fiction writing again, the first book I read was The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book launched me into inspired and prescriptive action. While on Julia’s 12-week spiritual journey of reawakening my inner creative, I wrote for 45 minutes each morning and took myself on an artist date each week. Purchasing this book was intentional, and it was just the nourishment the writer in me needed to grow.
2) Read authors that make you feel good
This was the biggest problem with reading Chuck Palahniuk. When I put down his books, I didn’t feel good. However, every night last winter when I put down a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories, my head swam with sweet images of beautiful characters and loving stories. Unsurprisingly, my first piece of fiction in many years took place decades ago and was as clean and simple as most work from Fitzgerald’s time. I was reading work from decades earlier and I ended up writing stories from a similar time. Fitzgerald’s influence on me was palpable.
All writers want to better their craft. A lot of this learning comes from pen to paper (or fingers to keys) time, but it can come from books, too. Some of my favorite writing books are by Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind: Living the Writers Life. They’re anecdotal stories about the craft of writing, and both include prompts for writers of any genre. Another great anecdotal book is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. If you’re more interested in tips and prompts, I suggest Naming The World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. Writers are often voracious readers; it’s important to spend some of that reading time learning how to write, no matter your skill level.
4) Read your craft
This is obvious but it’s important. If you are writing short stories, read short stories. If you are writing creative nonfiction, read creative nonfiction. If you’re working on a novel, read novels. Likewise, if your skill is stacking colorful images together to create beautiful metaphors, read someone who does that well, like Melissa Febos. If you’re working on a collection of humorous travel essays, read Bill Bryson. After Fitzgerald I moved onto Zadie Smith, a modern writer whose character development and familial interactions are articulate and real. My writing jumped back to the 21st century and quickly began to focus on the people within my stories. Zadie is a perfect read for anyone focused on character-driven fiction.
5) Broaden your horizons
While it is key to study authors of your specific craft, reading work by people of different religions, ethnicities and backgrounds is a great way to generate ideas for characters and plotlines. I recently read a collection of short stories by a brilliant Muslim woman named Randa Jarrar. Him, Me, Muhammad Ali’s stories mostly take place in the Middle East and involve situations and characters that I don’t often come across. These stories brought me far from my natural elements and into made up worlds that I’ve never experienced before. When I finished the book, I had a list of ideas for my own fiction.
It is a dangerous game we writers play, being readers. No matter the books we read or the cities we visit, influence is imminent. We must be mindful, then, of what we feed ourselves.
Kolina Cicero is a writer in Minneapolis. She writes fiction and essays, and is currently working on a collection of short stories. Kolina can be found on Twitter at @KolinaCicero.