Dispatches No. 13: Joan Leegant on Reading for Writing

Posted Thu, 4/30/2015 - 2:06pm by  |  Category:

Dispatches Series GraphicReading When You Write
by Joan Leegant

I was having dinner with a novelist friend when the talk got around to what we like to read when we’re working on long projects. What fiction writers read—or don’t read—while writing their own books can be surprising. I told my friend that when I was writing my second book, a novel, I read and re-read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, often before I started my own work, because I liked Franzen’s muscular sentences and Coetzee’s austere clarity. Though their novels had nothing to do with what I was writing about, reading them made me eager to get back to my manuscript and down to work.

My friend allowed as to having similar inclinations but added that sometimes she’s had to stop when the sound of what she’s reading gets too deep into her ear. She’s not alone. While reading Cormac McCarthy during the early stages of a novel, Chris Offutt found McCarthy’s style so pervasive that he was just writing (in his words) bad Cormac McCarthy. Now he reads only nonfiction while generating new material—in his case, on the subject he’s writing about—in prose as flat and dull as possible. Only when revising can he read fiction. Siri Hustvedt also reads only nonfiction while writing novels, often about the brain and memory, or psychoanalytical case studies.

Some books provide needed permission. Julia Alvarez says she got permission to write in a Latina voice not from a Latina author but from Maxine Hong Kingston, an Asian-American. Something about Hong Kingston writing about her culture, making sense of it, gave Alvarez permission to write about hers.

Reading choices can be driven by craft challenges coming up in your own work. Melissa Pritchard found in Anna Karenina the instruction she needed for how to slow down and open up significant moments. As he was nearing the end of Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks began to intuit musical tones underlying his draft that reminded him of the end of Moby Dick. He hadn’t read Melville’s opus in twenty-five years. He went back to read the last forty pages. Sure enough, he found what he was looking for. He’d had a tonal memory of it, and his evolving draft led him to revisit it.

Then there’s poetry, which can act like a tonic for a wordy prose writer. Good poems bring us closer to language and, not incidentally, to the truths about the human condition. They can remind us, as nothing else can, why we write in the first place.

Reading is essential nourishment for writers, and most crave it the way they crave food or any other pleasure. The question is what to read and when. Hilton Als, in his essay “Ghosts in Sunlight,” quotes Jean Rhys as describing her writing as “the tiniest stream, one that trickles into the vast ocean that is world literature,” then adds: “But without those streams there would be no ocean.” We can all add our own small trickle to the ocean; there’s room for everyone. When we’re in the midst of a project, what and who and how we read can help us do just that.

Exercise: Find writers or works you love in whatever genre (prose, poetry, drama) and spend an hour reading from them before your next writing session.