When we first started to talk about starting up the Renegade Word blog, I knew I wanted my take on things to be “the writer who reads.” This is really not a very original position to take, so I’m sorry about that and I give my solemn promise that I will do my best to keep it fresh and interesting in future articles. But “the writer who reads” is how I think of myself and it’s how a lot of you other writers think of yourselves, too. So here’s a little bit about me.
I went to a college where everyone had to write a yearlong thesis in their final year as a graduation requirement (undergrad, mind you). There was no official “creative writing” major and everyone interested in creative writing was an English major officially and had to fulfill all those same requirements for graduation.
At the beginning of the year in which you had to write your thesis, you could apply through a committee to write what we called a “creative thesis”—“creative” as opposed to “analytical.” A creative thesis for a prose writer is usually a novella or a collection of short stories or essays. For a poet, it’s a collection of poems or even an epic poem.
An analytical thesis would be, as mine was, exploring the work of an author through a specific lens. If you got rejected (get rejected? every year must crush a new set of dreams), you had to write an analytical thesis. Both involve a full year of labor and an oral defense, but you can see the fundamental differences between the two.
My friends from other schools have criticized this system of screening who writes a creative thesis and who doesn’t. I can’t say it served my self-esteem well—I thought I did all the right things: I took creative writing classes and literature classes, I worked hard, I almost never missed class, and I never caused trouble for my professors.
All our English professors repeat that there are no guarantees anyone will get what they want, but I really believed there was a guarantee for me. A month into writing my thesis, I began to enjoy and continued to enjoy writing it. I was told it was well-written at the end of the year. At times, I was even proud of myself.
But creative writing was always my “thing” from the age of thirteen onward, so to say that being rejected didn’t cripple my confidence and creative impulse would be a lie. I feel as though I’m still struggling without a year of one-on-one instruction on my creative work that would have come from application approval.
I also didn’t do creative work for over a year. My last year in school, I took all upper-level literature courses in addition to writing my thesis. This meant that I was assigned easily a thousand pages of reading per week, much of which was very complex literature (the Bloomsbury Group and Henry James) or dense philosophical works (one week we were assigned the entirety of Derrida’s Limited, Inc., although in an act of clemency our professor split Goffman’s 600-page Frame Analysis into two weeks).
All that in addition to maintaining a self-driven project designed to stretch your academic legs. Not a lot of time to flesh out characters and develop plotlines. (Or, you know, sleep.)
I’m not writing all this to brag about what an amazing English major I am; rather, I’m trying to demonstrate why my brain felt broken after graduation. Reading for fun? Is there such a thing? I hadn’t read a book over a summer since starting college. I’d start books and fail to finish them: classic literature, essays, fantasy, short stories, contemporary novels. I managed to break the spell recently with a burst of Faulkner fervor, but it took me thirteen months after I got my diploma. My writing state and reading state are currently similar: I’ve slowed, but I remain optimistic.
I did take creative writing classes in college. For my first three years, I still tried to write when I wasn’t in creative writing class. It was hard to do, and in my last year I fell apart completely. Creative writing classes made me work on a deadline, gave me workshopping groups (often ones filled with members I never would have picked on my own), and gave me time I had to dedicate to writing. We had reading, too, and I got to read some really great contemporary writers I otherwise wouldn’t have read. Sometimes I even got to meet them if I wasn’t fangirling too hard to make eye contact.
Most importantly, taking these classes drilled into me the mantra of my professor: in order to be a writer, you have to be a reader. This is something I still firmly believe. I believe it not just because my professor said it, but also because when I was most active in my writing pursuits, I was encompassed by literature. I learned what I liked and what I didn’t like.
I envied but feared the intricate plots of Austen and Dickens. I cringed at the love plot jammed into The Sign of the Four as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson pursued a murderer. I realized that the tediousness of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was worth slogging through so that I could watch J.M. Coetzee dismantle its colonialism in Foe. Reading Henry James made me groan for hundreds of pages at a stretch. Virginia Woolf blew my mind and Cormac McCarthy could volley me between nausea and tears.
And while I don’t write postcolonial deconstructions or mysteries or in a high Modernist style, there is no way to deny that these works have had an influence on me and every facet of my personal writing. In other words, I can use my analytical toolkit to improve my own writing.
So that’s enough about my personal history. I’m going to use the second part of this post to expand on that last point: why I think reading is so important to writers.