Writers must read.
Writers must also study what they read. Few writing workshops can surpass the value of careful perusal of the work of other writers. This is true whether the writers have received the Pulitzer prize or deserve to be pulled from the shelves of their own local library. I can learn as much from poor writing as excellence.
For several decades of my life, way beyond academia, I read with a highlighter and pen in hand. I highlighted key points and made interpretive notes in margins. As far as I was concerned, books were designed with margins so I could write in them, and my annotations contributed to my mastery of their content.
In the last many years, I abandoned that habit, for two primary reasons. One is that I turned largely to libraries to supply my reading material. Beyond the obvious economy of this move, my shelves are full. I’ve reached the point where “no net increase in acquisitions” has become mandatory. If I buy a new book, I must donate an old one. Who wants to buy a book that’s been marked up? And who wants to donate a book with personal thoughts inscribed in the margins, no matter how neatly?
Another reason for my recent laxity is a fear that if I pay too much close attention to what others write, I could inadvertently stumble into plagiarism. My belief along these lines has been that I can read things and think about them, but if I focus too intensely, my thoughts will cease to be my own.
Not long ago a light went on. I realized that I’ve been throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I’m missing a lot by leaving my books in their virgin state! Part of the credit for this conclusion rightfully belongs to Jerry Waxler, author of Memory Writers Network. Jerry posts some phenomenal analyses of memoirs. He has never stated that he marks up books, but I know he buys a lot, and I can’t believe he can come to the deep conclusions he reports without careful study and ... writing on the pages.
Jerry is not the only one who inspired me. I’d already made this decision when it was reinforced by QuoinMonkey in her most recent post on the red Ravine blog about the value of reading.
I’ve made a fresh vow: I shall start writing in books again. However, I do need to qualify this statement: I still believe in the “greenness” of libraries, and I’m not about to buy more bookshelves. I’ll still rely on public libraries, but I will read with paper under the pen at hand and make a lot of notes. I may photocopy key pages — that’s legal if the intent is personal study. And, I’ll alter my beliefs about people purchasing marked up books. I’ll autograph my scribblings and adopt the philosophy that my annotations add value to future readers.
Basically, I’m going to do more than read. I’m going to return to my earlier habit of studying the books I read, with the occasional exception of novels read purely for escape and pleasure. I challenge you to do the same. It's guaranteed to add punch and vigor to your writing, and you are bound to find new inspiration and ideas.
Write now: about a book that’s been especially significant to you. Read a new book and underline key phrases. Write your own inspirations in the margins. If it’s a library book, keep a journal of your thoughts as you read.
Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal