On Reading as a Writer

Fifty Shades of Grey has become one of the most talked about, most discussed books lately. It is the fastest selling paperback of all time and surpassed even Harry Potter. The series that has outsold Harry Potter was written as Twilight erotica, online FanFiction.  You read that right. Now, I’ve read the Twilight series. I’ve seen the movies, I even went to a few midnight premiers. So this is not a post about bashing Twilight or even Fifty Shades, especially since I refuse to read the latter. Everyone has a right to read whatever they want to read, be it smut or otherwise. That said, I read that e-readers such as the Kindle and Nook have made reading books like Fifty Shades more accessible, since you can read them in anonymity. I find that fascinating. If you are so ashamed to be seen reading something, how can you fully enjoy reading it?

I have always been a self proclaimed nerd as far as books are concerned. I love the fantasy genre and I grew up reading books about talking animals and dragons. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t the “cool” thing to do. Especially since I was reading on a 12th grade level when I was only ten. I’ve read other genres as I’ve gotten older, from romance to crime to mystery to classic literature. But I always come back to my first love: fantasy. You could definitely qualify Twilight as fantasy, although I personally would not. It’s Young Adult Literature and Romance that just has some mythical creatures thrown in. Re-reading the books this summer made me compare them to another series I’ve been hooked on this year: A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin, possibly better known as the Game of Thrones books.

My older sister got me into these books, as she often has in the past. She would read fantasy books, realize they were inappropriate for me, and then refuse to let me read them until she deemed me old enough to not be permanently damaged by the content. I actually watched the first season of the show on HBO before I read any of the books and that was it. I couldn’t wait to read the book and to buy myself the box set. I read the whole series and then immediately went back to the beginning and read them again. I re-read books all the time, half of my books are falling apart or expanded to twice their size. Usually, I wait a few months. But I absolutely could not  put these down. I actually have to make myself read other things because I want to go back and read them again.

What is it about these books? Yes, there are dragons. There are knights, princesses, and a gigantic war for a single throne. There are also weird mythical demon creatures threatening to take over the land and some very funny weather patterns. So, what sets this series apart? I have never read or watched such vivid characters before in my life. After finishing the first book, I wanted to immediately get my computer and begin what would, of course, be my best written work to date, a story full of complexity and life. I also wanted to delete everything I’ve ever written, curl up in a ball and cry, and then find a new dream career path. If you are not a writer, perhaps you cannot understand the mixture of awe and utter despair that a truly great book brings. But I think this can be applied to almost any aspect of life: you see something that is both inspiring and crippling all at once. Whether you’re a runner and you watch someone win the IronMan or even  watching a collegue succeed in the business world .

That brief moment of “I want to do this! I want to create something that makes other people feel like I do!” is followed hard on the heels by “I can’t.” Teddy Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Simple words, but they carry so much weight. I think, perhaps, that this quote can be too simplified. Comparison, if it drives us to excel, if it gives us ambition can be good—but we must recognize that there will always be someone better, stronger, faster, richer, etc. Perhaps, in that case, comparison should be “inspiration.” Inspiration is that moment of awe and comparison is what creates that black hole of despair that sucks us in when we tell ourselves we can’t.

If we could just manage to catch inspiration in our hands, to hold it gently so as to not crush its fragile wings and let the flutter-flutter of creativity breathe, then we would not be so overwhelmed by the desire to be on top. If you truly love what you do, that crushing disappointment, the overwhelming pressure will ease. It must, because even if you throw out every story you’ve written, trash every idea you’ve begun, the next day you will find yourself scribbling on post it notes, or taking notes on your phone. A stranger in the airport will become a character dying to star in your next story, something someone says will become a line of dialogue that you will jot down and save for a time when it just fits.

There is something, as a writer or an artist, that you to which you simply must become reconciled. There is nothing truly new. There isn’t. Everything is based on something, inspired by something. So don’t be afraid to borrow, to imitate, to adjust and to tweak. Storylines will follow certain formulas, no matter how many twists you throw into them. Characters will be inspired and derived from other characters, or from real people. No one ever said that was wrong. So be inspired, but don’t let yourself be crushed. Maybe I will never be able to write anything like George R.R. Martin, but maybe I can learn from the things I like in his work and from the things I don’t. I read another blog where a writer mentioned starting a reader’s journal. As she read things, she would jot down descriptions or dialogue or details that she liked, themes, settings, anything that caught her attention.

Most writers have heard that the best way to become better writers is to read, and I believe that is true. But we have to be careful not to get so lost in the reading that we lose any desire to write because we cannot measure up to the impossible standards we have set for ourselves. Besides the complexity of Martin’s books, the thing that pulls me in every time is the depth of the characters and especially, how utterly flawed every single one is. There are no heroes in this book—the noble, selfless people are the first to die. It may be fantasy, but it is full of such reality and such truth. That is what makes good writing. Even if it takes place in outerspace or in Narnia or Middle Earth or Westeros, if the people are real and the problems are real—that is the making of a great story. So read what you want to read and write what you want to write, but don’t let comparison kill your joy, and don’t let it smother that spark of inspiration that really great books can bring.

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