February 26, 2011

You are what you read: reading to write well, think well, and have something to say

The old adage, “You are what you eat,” contains many grams of truth for weighing physical health, but when it comes to healthy thinking and the development of writing skill, you are what you read or don’t read.

Think, for example, of the books that have influenced you in some way. Chances are, you would not be a writer if you had never read a book, but writer or not, the books you loved during childhood, teen years, and last week have shaped your mental outlook and, very probably, your character. That’s power!

So let’s think about books that made us think and make us thinkers.

If you’re a guy, some of your choices most likely differ from mine, but as a young reader, The Secret Garden showed me the healing power of honesty and persistent love, while Anne of Green Gables encouraged belief in a creative voice and spirit. Almost before memory, though, The Little Engine That Could laid the tracks for those later books to carry strong beliefs in caring, persistency, and faith. Later still, such inspirational novels as The Robe and Christy put similar values into the forefront of my forehead.

Before we even begin to read by ourselves, book choices shape our thoughts.

Books continue to shape the well-read life.

Books also help us to develop as writers.

From childhood on, the King James Version of the Bible shaped my thinking, first for the content, which I better understood in the many newer translations that followed, but also for the poetry and musicality that still make me want to go for a poetic flow even in writing nonfiction.

To develop my writing skill on purpose, however, my initial choices came from books published by Writers Digest. Their magazine and also Poets & Writers have continued to supply useful ideas and information as has my long-time membership in Writers-Editors.com. (Their 28th writing contest that I help to judge each year ends March 15, so check their contest guidelines soon.)

Hopefully, you gain useful information about writing on this blog and about poetry on The Poetry Editor blog . Such resources can help writers in general, but our book choices show our individuality as we each become what we read. So, we might:

Read ourselves well before choosing books to read.

My writings, for example, went from inspirational romances and devotionals to a picture book for preschoolers and life-health encyclopedias for college students. Sounds nice, but the fun of writing about all sorts of topics in all sorts of genres did not win a consistent readership nor help me to develop a voice that can be heard above the crowd.

Our books influence readers who stop to listen.

Our books help our readers become what they read.

Our books also give us what we most want to read.

For years, I devoured novels but rarely read them now, so, for now anyway, I no longer write them. Thanks to my grands, I still read children’s books, especially well-written picture books, and I still like to write them. Most often though, I read stacks of poetry and every reputable translation of the Bible I can find.

As I put together my love of the Bible and of poetry, I asked myself this question, which may help you to read yourself well too:

What book(s) will be most likely to help me at this particular time in my writing life?

For example, my response led me into studying a classic that combines my particular interests: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. I read it years ago but did not get the literary references, spiritual themes, or political purpose of that book, which is primarily a treatise on the separation of church and state – a division that had not been fully realized in the early 1300's.

When Dante wrote his book, the current title also had not been accepted. He did not call his manuscript “divine” since that might have been presumptuous enough to land him in a low level of Purgatory! Within a couple of centuries, readers added the word, but the original title was simply The Comedy, which has nothing to do with the comedic laughter of today but, rather, means the opposite of a tragic tale. To define quickly:

A tragedy is a story that starts well but ends badly.

A comedy is a story that starts badly but has a happy ending.

To keep my reading of this classical work from being tragic, I needed help! When I previously read the slender volume, I had somehow missed the heft of its meaning. So to help me “get it” this time, I got a massive three-volume set with a contemporary free verse translation by Robert M. Durling and heavy-duty footnotes and articles by him and Ronald L. Martinez. Yes, it's a little intimidating – okay, a lot. But reaching the half-way mark has given me a larger view than I would have noticed on my own, helping me to reassess my biblical values, poetry, and life.

Undoubtedly, my choice of reading material will help to shape my thinking and my approach to future writing projects. And, isn’t it best to do this before we sit down to write - think about and assess our dearest beliefs? Then, it’s not that we want to tell people how to think or feel but that our writings can help our readers better clarify their own thoughts as they continue to become what they read.


(c) 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.