What We Read to Write

By Eric Rasmussen

Everyone knows that writers HAVE to read. Caps and italics. Bold, if necessary. And what are new writers supposed to read? All of it. All the pages. The big names in your genre and the not-so-big-but-recently-published names. The classics in your genre and the classics that transcend genre. The authors everyone has heard of and the authors only the initiated have heard of. We read for enjoyment, and we read critically to improve our own writing, and we read a little bit because if we ever find ourselves at a dinner with other writers and someone asks what our favorite Lucia Berlin story is and we don’t have anything to say, we might as well just stab ourselves in our hearts with our steak knives.

Consequently, we all keep very eclectic bookshelves. My to-be-read books sit on top, in the order I intend to enjoy to them. A Raymond Carver collection followed by an issue of Ploughshares, then some George Saunders, a New Ohio Review, a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel, the Lorrie Moore book I’ve always meant to revisit, and on and on. These texts are like Lucky Charms marshmallows in the bowl of what I actually spend my time reading. As a high school English teacher, I read thousands of pages a year of student writing. As an assistant fiction editor of an online literary journal, I considered over 800 short stories in the last twelve months. As a writer with plenty of writer friends, I read works-in-progress and new drafts and chunks of text that may or may not turn into anything. Who knows.

With all those pages, and a healthy desire to keep improving my own work, I have to wonder: which examples are most worth my time? The great ones? The good ones? The ones closest to my own skill level or the ones that help illustrate how far I’ve come?

What we’re missing, of course, is an equation. One classic story (greater than 100 years old), plus one modern classic, times three contemporary award winners, divided by 200 pages of any type of novice writing equals a writer’s current skill level, squared.

But of course there’s no equation. There are only the obligations we signed up for, what we enjoy, and how many hours we can spare each day. Or each week. Saunders taught me how to add electricity to a story’s beginning. Berlin taught me how to bring emotional depth to my characters. The slush pile teaches me that opening with a backstory is a terrible idea, and my students teach me that nothing outweighs clarity. And consistent verb tense.

I can’t offer any advice, only an observation: the only way any of us get better at anything is through practice. When it comes to my own writing, I don’t need to read another hundred eleventh grade research papers to understand the necessity of clear organization, nor do I need another pile of short story submissions to finally realize the difficulty of starting with dialogue. There’s so much to learn that, once I get a lesson, from someone great or someone not so great, I move on. What we read may not be as important as the variety we can achieve.