22 April 2021
Posted by Megan Laing
On Closer Inspection
You cannot be a writer without two things: being a reader and being a learner.
As a writer myself, I've found it particularly insightful to see how consistent support, guidance, and constructive criticism works in conjunction with creativity. In fact, in recent weeks, I’ve had my own experiences with peer and mentor review which I felt especially prepared for after observing the mentoring process in full swing with the Poetry Ambassadors scheme.
There are many components of being a writer outside of the physical act of writing, the most important I believe to be honing the skill of reading. How can reading be a skill? How can we become insightful readers and creative writers simultaneously?
On closer inspection, I’ve decided that reading is the preliminary step to writing. Nobody picks up a pen before picking up a large number of books. By reading - maybe even devouring - fiction, poetry, short stories, plays, or, indeed, any other medium of writing, we’re not only reading for the story but also our own creative gain.
An example of which that springs to mind was, when writing my first book, my co-author and I were reading almost exclusively young adult literature, the genre we were writing. I could apply the term research here, but I found there to be a large gulf between my reading and what I’d actually consider research (e.g. setting, narrative arcs, language building, etc).
Reading is also a huge source of inspiration (obviously). The book I wrote arguably would never have come into existence had I not read other books in the same genre. I doubt that my book would have been conceived, let alone written, had I not first read other books like the Six of Crows Duology by Leigh Bardugo.
However, reading for writing is a two-sided coin of fiction and theory. More recently, I’ve found myself nose deep in writing theory and my thoughts vary. When I was younger, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about writing theory and classes because I thought that writing surely relies on talent and natural creativity. Let’s all take a moment to laugh at this fool.
If you were going into surgery, would you trust a surgeon who relied on natural talent instead of years of training? If you were an athlete, would you trust a trainer who had never run for anything more than the bus in their life? I don’t think so. It’s something you have to learn, even if it is partly informed by talent.
And, although writing is not generally comparable with surgery or sports, by opening a book you place a certain trust in the author. That’s why people stick with series for so long - because the author has already established the relationship with their reader and will continue to build this relationship as a result.
At the moment, my work is mostly in the form of short stories and I’m currently enrolled in a short story writing module for my English Literature course at the University of Southampton. A considerable amount of time I spent ‘studying’ for this class is spent nose-deep in theory books, making notes on my classmates’ drafts, and going over my work over and over again. I feel, on the whole, that I’ve grown into a more disciplined writer as a result. It’s not just me writing for myself as a hobby anymore, I’m very much held accountable for my own work (or rather, finishing my own work).
This reminds me of something Poetry Ambassador mentee Kaycee Hill said in her interview: ‘Having Aviva read my work really lights a fire under me to make sure it’s good work. Because someone has set those challenges for you, you want to make sure it's worth their time to read your work, to critique your work, to get feedback on your work.’
The act of reading your work is one that I sometimes find difficult and a little bit cringeworthy. I’m sure if I was to go back and read my first book, I’d be squirming at most of it because, quite simply, I’m not the same writer I was five years ago. I was writing on my bed after school and, every time I encountered even the slightest block, I would send the chapter off to my co-author to have a crack at.
I’d be interested to see what our mentors, Aviva Dautch, Caleb Parkin, and Romalyn Ante have to say about this, and any other mentoring techniques they’ve found effective when I interview them soon.
Francine Prose describes the impact of close reading on writing particularly well in her book, Reading Like a Writer:
“I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made. And though it’s impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction”