Posted in Creativity, creativity generators, Cross-writing, Reading

What writers should read

It’s been raining here non-stop – almost—for months—almost.  At least that’s the way it feels. This is terrific for our lawns and gardens, but not so much for anyone longing to get a bit of (dry) fresh air and sunshine.  If you’re anything like me, though, a rainy day is an invitation to a good book, or any book, good or otherwise.  It’s an opportunity to lose yourself in the pages (or electronics if that’s your preferred platform), to learn something, to be entertained, to be provoked, to daydream.

I have two questions for you: What does a writer read?  And…What should a writer read?

The first question is, of course, making the reasonable assumption that writers read.  Of course they read.  The answer to the question is obvious: whatever he or she wants to read.  My answer to the second question – what should a writer read – might surprise you.

Perhaps you think that writers should read about writing.  Or they should read books in their specialty area (for example if you’re a creative non-fiction writer, you should read  creative non-fiction; if you’re an historical novelist, you should read historical novels; if you’re a women’s lit writer, that’s what you should read and so on).  Of course it’s important for you to read the kind of literature that you write.  In fact, it’s probably more important the other way around: you should probably write what you like to read.  So, it’s likely that you will read all of this anyway.  But in my view it’s only part of what you should read.

I think it’s important to cross-read.  This is a natural extension of last week’s discussion of cross-writing and is related again to the concept of creativity cross-training.  Reading in genres far afield from your everyday work and writing is one of the best ways to keep your creative mind working overtime.  And it’s fairly easy to tell if you’re a cross-reader; stack up the books you are currently reading, and the books that you have on your next-to-read list, and see what’s there.

Here’s my current stack of reading-now books…

Books I'm reading now.

As I mentioned, it’s been raining, so both my husband and I have managed to take on Stieg Larsson’s trilogy and I’m on the final one The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  We added onto that experience by watching the Swedish (with English sub-titles) movie versions.  We’ll watch the final one this weekend after I finish reading it.

But you can see a real range of literature in this pile.

  • London Day-by-Day is a representation of my favorite way to prepare for a trip.  I’ve been to London several times before, but next month we’re meeting my son (who lives in Europe) there for a few days before ticking off one of the experiences on our bucket list for which he will join us: a transatlantic liner crossing from London to New York on the Queen Mary 2.  This little book series is my bible for walking new areas of cities.  Sometimes they are even useful in the future when I’m writing about those cities.
  • No Exit and Three Other Plays by John Paul Sartre is a bit outside my usual reading.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time I actually read a play.  However, one of my avocations is writing ballet libretti and I promised a new one to my son who is a budding choreographer.  I’ve been inspired by the notion of Sartre’s take on hell.
  • Health Communication – what can I say?  I’m also working on the development of a new course in my department (many of us writers do still have day jobs).
  • Finally, the book on vintage purses represents one of my passions: handbags.  I actually have a collection of vintage Coach handbags.  The truth is that one of the antique handbags I came across in my cross-reading is the inspiration for some research for another historical novel.

See, what did I tell you about cross-reading? What are you reading now?

Posted in Cross-writing, Writing craft

Cross-training, cross-writing, it’s all the same

I doubt if there is a person among us who hasn’t come across a magazine or newspaper article or online post on cross-training.  After all, we’re all obsessed with fitness these days – n’est-ce pas?  Not you? Even so, I’ll bet that you still have a pretty good idea about what cross-training is.  It’s that approach tofitness that involves a variety of training methods to improve your overall fitness level.  For example, if you usually run for its health benefits, by adding strength conditioning, you’ll improve your overall fitness level, which is likely to improve your running.  So, you already know this.  But have you ever thought that the same  approach might apply to your writing?

It doesn’t matter if most of your writing is on a blog, in magazines, in academic journals or even in your own personal journal, how you write matters.  How you write affects the way that both you and others understand your ideas.  As William Zinsser (whose book On Writing Well should be in your library) suggested, “Most people have no idea how badly they write.”

Go back and read some of your very earliest writing and you’ll quickly notice that if you’ve kept on with it, your writing today is so much better than it was when you started.   Your continual practice has, in fact, made you better.  But if you’ve gone a step further by actually working at improving your writing, it will jump off the page at you and scream: “I am better!”  One of the most under-appreciated approached to writing improvement in my view is the concept of cross-writing.

I’m not sure when I came up with or stumbled upon the idea, but it probably had something to do with a creativity course I taught a few years ago to a small group of third-year university students.  In that course we explored the idea of creativity cross-training: for example, if you’re a choreographer, then you could try a visual art such as photography or painting to keep the creative juices flowing – learn to see things in different ways.  This enhances your creativity.  The same holds true for writing.

I have great respect for authors who work in a particular specialty, but I’ll bet my next paycheck that most of them (if not all) do at least a bit of cross-writing even if they don’t cross-publish (not sure that’s a real concept for anyone but me). Many, if not most authors, keep journals in which they write a lot of material that they never intend for readers to see.  So, they cross write, too. But I’m talking about an even bigger commitment to this approach.

I’m talking to all you academic writers (including students) out there who don’t seem to think that your writing needs to improve – that it’s “good enough.”  But I think that taking the time to write a bit of fiction, to blog or even to keep a personal journal would help. You would improve your story-telling ability, and in spite of the parameters within which you must publish, at the heart of what you’re doing is telling the story of your research, or your theory, or your opinion.

I’m also talking to all those bloggers out there who free-associate in every blog post. I’m imploring you to take the time to do a bit of research for a change, and craft a piece that is more authoritative  I’m not necessarily suggesting that you post it on your blog – rather do it for yourself and your writing.

Perhaps all of this is to justify my own approach to writing:  a bit of academia, a bit of blogging, a few non-fiction trade books, a couple of textbooks, a bit of creative non-fiction (memoir) and, increasingly, works of fiction.  This apparent lack of focus on my part, I like to think of as evolutionary in terms of the quality of my own writing.  When I have the courage to open the pages of that first book I wrote  and really read, I am usually astounded that a publisher bought it.  My writing is better now, and gets better with every article and every book I write.  I don’t think you can ever stop improving.

What, then, are some of the skills that I learned by writing in one genre and was then able to use to improve another style?

  • First, I used to write feature articles.  One of the first things you have to be able to do (after gathering your material) to write a feature is to organize your material and write an outline.  That ability to think about how to tell a story has improved the way I’m able to write case studies in textbooks.
  • That ability to tell a story also became extraordinarily useful in writing the memoir.
  • The self-reflection skills that I had to engage to write the memoir became a key to opening up my imagination so that I could pick up on the rich possibilities of fiction that might come from an academic journal article (that’s the backstory about my upcoming book Grace Note which I’ll tell you about the minute I have it in my hand from the publisher).
  • My research skills that I honed by writing textbooks are the key to my ability to write historical fiction that is full of accurate historical detail.
  • And of course, all of the editors who have had a crack at my work have taught me some of the fine points of grammar, punctuation and style – even if I had to argue with them from time to time. In almost all cases, they won.

All of this makes me a writer who I think continues to improve, but one who has not yet arrived!

What parts of your current writing could be improved by trying out another form?