To write well, it helps to read well. By reading well, I don’t mean fast reading speeds or good reading comprehension (although those help too). A good reader, in the sense that I mean, reads widely and thoughtfully, taking the time to notice details and make connections between different subjects.
According to Vladimir Nabokov, “the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense.” While Nabokov is famous for the high expectations he had for his readers, these qualities will help you get the most out of your reading, so they are worth cultivating (except perhaps for the dictionary–we have the internet now for that).
You may be surprised how much you get out of reading when you take the time to remember names and other details or when you stop to look up a word you don’t know. Best of all, the same qualities that Nabokov says make a good reader–memory, imagination, a good vocabulary, and an artistic sense–are the same qualities that make a good writer.
It’s not just a matter of helpful traits, though; I find if I’ve been reading a lot of well-written books in the genre I’m currently writing in, my work is better. “Well-written” is key here. When you spend a lot of time with certain friends, you can start to pick up their mannerisms, patterns of speech, and sense of humor; the same is true for books that you spend time with.
So hang out with authors you admire. One of the great things about books is that they allow you to hear the mental workings of some of the smartest, funniest people around. Take advantage of this! If you’re trying to find a poetic voice, read the poets you enjoy. If you’re trying to craft short stories that pack a punch, try reading some Hemingway. (Or Flannery O’Connor. Or Raymond Carver. You get the picture.)
You have access to virtually any writer, so if you want one of them to be your muse, read the things he or she has written, and let that be a jumping off place for you. You don’t need to consciously imitate that author’s writing style unless you want to. Just reading well will allow you to absorb techniques that you might otherwise never have noticed.
Is there a writer who inspires you? Feel free to share in the comments!