On Reading To Be a Writer

Creative Commons photo.

My take, for what it is worth: To be a writer, you ought to read or listen or use your fingers, as it were. To some extent.

Because swap out writing for another skill, talent, or hobby, and do so conversely: To be a musician, you don’t have to listen to music. To be a filmmaker, you don’t have to watch movies. To be a painter, you don’t have to observe other works of art.

That seems odd, right? Literary spaces occasionally delve into this discussion, which is why I’m bringing it up: Do you have to read to be a writer?

First, let me throat-clear in my usual: I’m just a dude musing and thinking aloud. I would never want to gatekeep. Gatekeeping is lame.

Anyhow, so, sure, if we want to be literal and somewhat pedantic, you don’t have to read to write, or listen to music to be a musician, or watch movies to be a filmmaker, or go to the local art museum to be a painter, but it sure seems like it would help, if you want to be good at those respective things! We all, in some way or another, even the most wholly unique and original among us, stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. That’s just how society and culture work! We can’t extricate ourselves from that fact. I don’t think it would be good advice to turn away from those “shoulders” and not learn from them.

One example I saw of the discourse. But it most recently came back up in June 2022.

There are two primary reasons that overlap, and one lesser peripheral reason, I’ve seen for why people suggest you don’t have to read to be a writer: 1.) For a variety of reasons, I don’t have time to read; 2.) Reading is another form of elitist, ableist thinking (going back to the first point); and 3.) Why can’t I enjoy writing without reading, just as I can enjoy playing basketball without watching the NBA?

Where I agree with elitist, ableist thinking around reading: The frustration expressed when audiobooks, Kindles, etc. are not considered real reading. Admittedly, as a snotty teen, I was a snob about this point. But of course it is real reading. I also agree that those who are historically, systemically discriminated against, underserved, economically disadvantaged, and so on, may not have as much time to read because they’re working class families, or whatever other scenario.

So, it isn’t as outlandish as it first appears, and especially because people get huffy and puffy once they see the “-ist” or “-ism” words coming out, but even if those putting forth their theory about elitism/ableism don’t always say it in this form, I think I understand what they are getting at.

With that said, however, you ought to read to some extent! However that comes, whenever that comes. To know what’s been done. To know what not to do. To see how others do it at all. To get a sense of style, structure and storytelling. To stand on the shoulders of those who came before, leap down, and do something else entirely. Whatever the case.

As for the third reason, of course! I see a distinction, though, between someone who enjoys writing and someone who strives to be a writer. In other words, to stick with the aforementioned basketball analogy, I may enjoy playing basketball, but that doesn’t mean I’m trying to be a basketball player. But if you wanted to be a basketball player, it might be a good idea to “watch some tape”! To be a student of the game. It almost feels axiomatically the case, I think.

But you know, my propensity is for anarchism, contrarianism and skepticism, so, if it titillates your creative juices to create without need to read, do your thing. As I’ve previously written, I’m not here to yuck your yum, or toxin your juices, as it were.

For me, though, I couldn’t imagine not reading. Mostly, because on its own merits, I love reading! That is what made me want to write! Reading inspired me, and still inspires me every day. When I read R.L. Stine as a kid, and was completely obsessed with his Fear Street series, I thought, “I want to do that. I want to scare people like that.” And that reaction and feeling has only grown and maturated in the 20-some years since then.

What do you think?

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