Yes, sadly: it’s true.
That’s what we have in great abundance, enrolled in our undergraduate creative writing classes: “Writers” Who Don’t Read. Or at least, not much, except occasionally on their phones. Though it’s fairly evident to us insiders of higher ed, hardly any of these non-reading “creative writers” seem to recognize the problem with this situation.
Why is this problematic? Writing is a craft, above all. So we must learn a craft by consulting experts, craftspeople we admire and wish to emulate. But when I ask young writers to name the prose stylists they admire most, they frankly are clueless. They have none. If I ask young poets which contemporary poets they read, they cannot name a single one.
I’ve been a pretty fair, though admittedly an amateur guitarist/singer over the years. You know what? It would be quite impossible to learn to play blues, rock and roll, or acoustic singer/songwriter type music — my favored genres — without becoming deeply immersed in the earlier players who literally invented and pushed forward those modes. Music is a craft, and it has a tradition, and I don’t need to reinvent the wheel, because I can now go on-line to Spotify (and so can you) and listen to those progenitors of the “singer/songwriter” genre: the entire catalogues of Dylan, Springsteen, Simon, Neil Young, Cat Stevens, or James Taylor, for starters.
Students are right about wanting to take a class; but they can–and should–take a class without taking a class! What I mean is, they should dive into the world of writing by becoming a devoted READER! They should become as obsessed with discovering good writing like I was — both with prose, and with guitar players. They should find writers, and blogs, that they can admire and follow, and hope to study and even emulate. We actually do that with the things we love, correct? You do not need to reinvent the wheel of great prose, or great blogging, or great poetry — and probably most of one’s wisdom and knowledge about reading comes from the passionate study of those things — outside a classroom.
DONALD O’CONNOR, DEBBIE REYNOLDS & GENE KELLY: ‘SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN’ (1952)
My niece is a terrifically skilled actress within the world of professional musical theater. She is playing Elphaba in the Broadway traveling show of Wicked right now, so I mean it when I tell you: she is really good! She probably took some class here and there in theater over the years. But the most formative things grew out of her sheer passion for the genre and form of musicals. I watched this develop over the years, and she needed no motivation whatsoever. For example, listening every year to her Mom point out the tiny error of Vera Ellen, tripping slightly over Danny Kaye in one of the dance scenes, in White Christmas — it teaches us to maintain grace under pressure, and it reminds us that most people never really notice those minor errors anyway! Keep smiling and finish strong!! Then she adored Thoroughly Modern Millie, and it inspired her to try and emulate Julie Andrews or Mary Tyler Moore; & together we watched Singin’ in the Rain a dozen times, and she wanted some of that girlish charm of Debbie Reynolds! That is what I mean by studying and learning a craft: finding mentors whom we never meet… Believe it, Debbie had mentors too.
In fact, the clever plot of that great film Singin’ in the Rain, one of my all-time favorites in any genre, is precisely about how modes of technology change art — and how some people are simply unable to change with those new technologies , to adapt… (spoiler alert for you sad people who have never seen this hilarious masterpiece). So without getting all theoretical on you, I’d casually suggest that the current rage of digital technologies has fooled many young people into believing they can be good writers WITHOUT doing the thousands of hours of reading… Just like that poor silent actress in the film, completely oblivious to how wacky and whiny her silly voice sounded to others.
Unfortunately, I’m here to report from the front lines: too many young people say they want to be writers but they aren’t reading; some of these are also oblivious to how wacky and whiny their silly voices sound to others, especially skilled writers who’ve spent thousands of hours reading great writers. Imagine wanting to play guitar but refusing to study the greats. Or becoming an actor, but never watching stage plays or movies. I learned about 80% of what I know about guitar by studying those long distance mentors I mentioned (and many others, like a foursome from Liverpool that once was rather popular); my niece studied those talents named above, along with so many others — Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, the kids in The Sound of Music, and others — both of us took a class without taking a class, in other words. We wanted to sound like them, so we mimicked what they were doing. It took much time and a lot of hard work. But this is a requirement of becoming just a decent writer — not to say a great writer. All good writers can list off scores of other authors whose works has influenced them, and sometimes changed them.
You want to be a writer? Find long distance mentors; and get to work reading some of the best. And give it time: it’s a craft, which by definition takes much toil and effort…