Prelude to writing: Experience of others enriches what you already know
WHEN you read, said the late American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, "find books that improve your colour sense, your sense of shape and size of the world".
Reading will not teach you how to write, but it will teach you how to see. So forget for a while those books that tell you how to craft, write, scheme a novel. Any book that you read will teach you the craft provided you read it well.
The Zulu language has more words to describe green than any language I know. Well, I didn't know that until I read about it in a book by Richard Lewis, a man with a remarkable eye for cultural nuances and with whom I have had the privilege to work in cultural-interfacing seminars.
There's green when the leaf is wet, green when the sun is shining on a wet leaf, green when the sun is shining on it from a different angle, and so on.
I have not, so far, mastered the Zulu language, but I have already begun to look at leaves in many different ways.
It is from the experience of others that you enrich what you already know. The experience of reading is quite similar, and there can only be one prelude to writing, and that is reading, and don't let anyone fool you who say that writing is not done by copying, but by being original.
Almost everything we know started from our efforts at copying, and then, when confidence steps in, you break free and start doing it your own way.
"Oh," say some writers you have read on the craft of writing. "When I start writing, I stop reading other people -- Tolstoy or Shakespeare -- lest they start to influence my style."
"I've always hoped they would," retorted the American writer Francine Prose, in her book for budding writers, called, instructively, Reading Like a Writer. Go get yourself a copy and read it well.
The world is largely your own construct: the grass is green because something in your brain tells you so. Tweak the parts and the grass may appear a shade of grey. We see things and we don't see things depending on what we think or gear ourselves to see.
The invisible gorilla experiment is one famous example, when people so engrossed in counting the number of passes made by people throwing basketballs simply failed to notice a ludicrous gorilla that walked into view.
The next time you walk a familiar street, look at the building that you have "seen" so many times before and look at its doors and the paint peeling and the jalousie and the window sills. You will see a building as you have, many times before, but a different building nevertheless because you are now fascinated by its details. And that will enrich you: your observation is sharper and you are looking with fascination, at things anew.
Every sentence that a writer writes is the result of his or her reading of many sentences by other people. Another way of saying this is, read closely and look for things that you enjoy.
If a sentence brings that frisson of delight, go back and read it again; if a view in words gives you a vibrant picture in your head, turn back and walk through the scene once more. But avoid clichés. Clichés don't work because they fail miserably and do not paint a picture -- perhaps it's the over-familiarity, perhaps it's because you've seen them too many times that your mind just doesn't even bother to work for them any more. You don't even want to go back to re-read a cliché.
Even a bad book is worth reading if you examine the ways that it is bad. A good book is even better if you know how it becomes good. This is the story behind a book that a writer, especially, looks for. For beginner writers, this reading behind the reading is what makes you different from readers who just skim through in search of a story.
"Can I be blunt on this subject?" asks Stephen King in his book, On Writing.
"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
Can writing be taught? Yes, possibly. Some writing schools give you the caveat that they don't teach talent. Some people are of the opinion that as you are gifted so are you. But writing is the only skill whose secrets are there in the open, and you will see them if you read closely and read with a purpose.
There's a piece of advice that works both ways: write a book that you would want to read. Read a book that you would want to write. Learn from Eliot the poet: "Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.
"The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn."