Learning to Write by Reading

I learned to write by osmosis. I used to read more good books in a month than most people read in a lifetime, and the elements of storytelling seeped into my soul. I still have to work at writing, probably more so than writers who took classes or who are naturally talented, but I have an instinct of what works and what doesn’t. The problem comes when I try to put what is in my mind down on the page, which is why I later augmented the osmosis with reading books on how to write and edit.

A friend also learned to write by reading, but not by osmosis. She rips apart the books she adores, literally tears out the pages. Sometimes she types a passage from a book (like Cormac McCarthy’s landscape passages in All the Pretty Horses) then types over the passage with different settings, different entities within that setting, different verbs, different moods, but keeps the rhythm of the words. She learned well. Her stories have a lyricism that rivals the best of Ray Bradbury.

And no, I won’t tell you who she is. People give her flak for mutilating books. But, as she says, “A book that shows no evidence of ever having been touched is probably not very touchable to begin with.” I’m sure those authors whose books she rips apart to learn from would be thrilled to know how much she appreciates their work. I know I would be, but I doubt anyone will ever try to emulate my prose. It’s utilitarian at best (mostly because I edit out any metaphors and lyricism that end up on the page. Unlike my book-mutilating friend, I have no use for them.)

And what is so terrible about ripping a book apart to learn from it? Worse things happen to books. Like burning.

I helped out at a book sale once, and dozens of boxes of category romances were left over. The librarian asked if I had a woodburning stove. She said, “These books burn well, that I know.” I was shocked. Even crappy books I wouldn’t read if they were the only books left in the world are sacred to me. After the sale, I got to wondering what else could one do with books that have no resale value. Throw them out? At least if they are used for fuel, they would serve their purpose. Aren’t cheap romances all about getting people heated up?

(For the record, I have never, will never burn a book. I never even tortured one, though once I did throw a book against the wall because I hated the ending.)

6 Responses to “Learning to Write by Reading”

  1. wanderer7 Says:

    Ah yes, learning by the art of imitation. James A Michener is the man for storytelling; those long sprawling biopics are a canvas for human experience.

    and writing in books is no crime; so long as they’re yours, and not the library’s. (I used to tear up Spencer’s The Fairie Queen to get closer to the essence.)

  2. nomananisland Says:


    I have always admired your clarity, you write very clearly and deliberately. It’s why I asked you to read my novel, because clarity to me implies sharp-eyes and objectivity. You have a natural talent for spotting sentences and grammar that need to be improved.

    However — I finally understand the areas where you and I have disagreements — not that they’re big arguments, but just as a “oh, I get it” kind of comment. You are not lyrical or metaphorical. Me — I tend to think around corners. My entire novel is about symbolism. There are things you see as “unnecessary” that are intrinsic to those underpinnings.

    I think we can learn a lot from each other (I know I have through our conversations) but think that’s because we have vastly different perspectives, and it’s always good to try to see through different eyes. We definitely don’t look at things the same way.

    Which means, in essence, two things. One – I’m grateful for the new perspective, and the friendship. And two, I would be very surprised (yet very pleased) if you end up really enjoying my novel, because of its metaphorical nature. It’s not the way you think. It is very much the way I think (after all, I wrote it).

  3. Bertram Says:

    Story is sovereign. Metaphor and lyricism bow down to its needs. Story does not bend to fit the needs of metaphor and lyricism.

  4. nomananisland Says:

    Who said it did? Metaphors are tools that are used as needed, same as adverbs, similes, personification, the semi-colon.

    If you don’t have a good story, skillful use of the pathetic fallacy or irony won’t save a novel. Great description and fabulous symbolism won’t retrieve a plot-hole or a boring climax.

    But what I’m saying is that I think in terms of symbols and metaphors, unconscious archetypes, dreams and visions. You seem (and this is a compliment) able to surgically pare those things away to just a clean story. It’s like the difference between Shakespeare and my university logic textbook. But both are still appealing.

    But No Man an Island is at its heart about how the symbols that surround us affect our perspectives, and that the symbols we choose to surround ourselves with reflect our character. With symbolism being so important to the text, I finally “get” why there are parts of it you and I have vastly different perspectives on — because we think in very different, but interesting, ways.

  5. Suzanne Francis Says:

    Books are like food- à chacun son goût. Some people like conflict bursting out on every page. Some people prefer a more leisurely pacing. Some people like sappy romances (paperback snacks, my sister calls them) some people like totally, to me, unintelligible hard science fiction. We are all different, and trying to write a book to please everyone is a Sisyphean task. I write what I would like to read. You should do the same.

    In the last small town we pass through before gong to our beach house, there is a combination library/information center/museum. In the gift shop they sell remaindered books that have been recycled into journals. The library removes the covers, and most of the pages. Then they spiral bind the front and back cover to blank paper and interleave a few of the original pages of the book. The spine is laminated and attached with ribbon as a book mark. The titles range from hot doctor romances, to bodice rippers, to boy’s and girl’s own annuals. I think this is a brilliant way to reuse and honor old books.

  6. lynn doiron Says:

    I love the remaindered book journals! How brilliant!

    Earlier, Pat, your mention of story should not bend to metaphor but rather the reverse should serve story. Yes. Absolutely.

    Now, I think I must create a journals from books I had thought to remainder to thrift stores . . . hmm. which ones?

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