Advice to Beginning Writers:

When it comes to writing, you are what you read

Aidan Chambers

First published in The [Melbourne, Australia] Age , 27 August 1993.

Here is the best advice I can give anyone about writing: Read a lot. When you think about it, all writing is reading. What writing is for, after all, is reading. I write so that I can read what I've written. Who doesn't? And I write because I want to communicate to others - to readers. So being a writer means being a reader first and last.

I've met many writers. Every one of them reads for the sake of it as well as for 'work'. And mostly they read a great deal. As a writer you are what you read. What goes into you as a reader influences what comes out of you as a writer: the kind of thing you write, how you handle the language, the way you tell stories, compose poetry, make plays or shape your essays. You can't help it. People are made like that. And all artists, all craftspeople, learn how to become better by studying each other's work, especially those they admire and think are the very best. Writing is both art and craft. Which means, of course, that it matters not just how much you read, but what you read.

What else does reading do? I've just glanced through the notebook I kept while writing my novel The Toll Bridge. The reading recorded there seems to me to fall into four main kinds.

Reading that makes me want to write.                                         

  Some writers, some books make me want to put words on paper. They stimulate me, give me an appetite, encourage me to go on during the dull and difficult times. They set me standards to judge myself against.

Reading that tells me what I need to know in order to write my own books.

I suppose most people would call this 'research'. For episodes in The Toll Bridge I needed to know about such subjects as the phase in women's lives called the menopause, the effects and treatment of concussion, and a particular psychological condition called the Fugue state. So I read medical books. I needed to know about the history and architecture of the bridge where the story is set. So I read a local history book about the bridge. The sexy games played at teenage parties, the ornithology and mythology of the raven, the history of the ancient god Janus, and a raft more of information all came from books. In order to write anything you need raw material to work with. Reading books (and now the internet) are the biggest source of supply.

Reading that teaches me how to write or to write better.

All the time I'm reading, a part of my mind is watching out for passages that will help me with my own writing. I'll start reading a chapter in a novel and find myself thinking, 'That's a good way to begin', and I'll store it away for later adaptation to my own use. I might even copy the passage into the notebook that always accompanies the novel I'm busy writing so that I won't forget it. Sometimes when I'm stuck, not sure how to handle a scene, I'll roam through my bookshelves, sampling favourite authors, books I admire, hunting for a scene that will give me a clue or provide a pattern, a model that will get me going. Not that I 'copy' slavishly. But there is a truth not usually admitted in public: all writing is theft. You take from other writers what helps you, and recycle it into something of your own.

Reading that takes my mind off my own writing.                            

'When I was writing,' Ernest Hemingway reported, 'it was necessary for me to read after I'd written in order not to think about or worry about my work until I could do it again.' I know what he means. There are books that make me want to write, and there are books that take my mind off my work and refresh me. The ones that refresh me and give me new energy are different with each book I write. While I was writing The Toll Bridge, Graham Greene's The Human Factor recharged my batteries, as did books by Paul Auster, Marguerite Duras, Margaret Mahy, Jan Mark, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cees Nooteboom, Jeanette Winterson, and a whole lot more.

All this makes it sound as if reading, for me, is just a matter of helping me in my work. But that's not how it is. I'm a reader first, a writer second. Reading makes me. Writing remakes me. I'd be lost if I didn't read, wouldn't know myself. By reading what I've written I find out what I've become.

Two tips;                                                                                       

> First, keep a record of what you've read. Nothing elaborate, simply a notebook in which you list the date you finished the book, its title and author. Reading is like a journey. It's important to know where you've been, otherwise it's easy to forget.

> Second, learn to read slowly, and learn to hear what you are reading as if it were being read aloud. All reading, all writing, is about the use of language. Attend to the way the language is used as much as anything else - the sound of its music, its rhythms and tunes, its pace, its pauses, its syncopation and its harmonies, its discords and its polyphonies, what it doesn't say as well as what it does say. To do that you have to read slowly enough to hear its music in your head. (If you find it hard to hear in your head, read it out loud.)

Do this and you'll achieve the end of all reading and all writing, which is this: that you enjoy it enough to revel in it, and you live your life more fully.





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