On Writing: Why Reading Matters


Today, I’m SO EXCITED to introduce you to my friend and writer/university English professor, Renee Ronika Klug, who is guesting for Rogue Writer.

Renee Ronika Klug
Renee Ronika Klug

Renee and I met years ago, when she started a writer’s group in Phoenix (she currently resides in Colorado). Not to mention, her brother introduced me to my longtime boyfriend.

But onto the stuff you’re here for. After you’re done reading her post, check out Renee’s personal blog, Quiet Anthem, and through her bio below, learn about the writing community Renee founded. She’s currently seeking submissions (hint, hint).

So … please welcome Renee to Rogue Writer:

ON WRITING: WHY READING MATTERS

By Renee Ronika Klug 

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” – Samuel Johnson

Eleven years ago, I went to New York to earn an MFA in creative writing, to learn how to write, to develop craft, to find my calling. I found it on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, in a classroom where before me sat 25 composition students wondering how to react. We overcame the semester, in part, by reading.

During that semester I was also taking two literature courses—one on Russians, the other on Americans—and my only writing was in lesson plans, reaction papers, and final essays. I read at least a thousand pages a week.

The following semester, I sat down one afternoon—after having scolded myself for not writing fiction in over six months—and wrote a complete short story, sixteen pages, in one sitting. It’s the only story I’ve never had to revise. It was also the story that readers most responded to and resonated with.

I believe that by turning over libraries—from Chekhov to Twain to Carver—I received my greatest lesson from graduate school and for teaching: reading well makes us better writers.

It is from Chekhov that we are warned about the gun hanging on the wall in the first act: it must go off by the third; from Twain, we understand that a word can impact the reader either like lightning or like the lightning bug; from Carver, we discover that we are not our characters, but they are us.

Reading good literature—the kind we’d like to write—infuses us with a knowledge that goes beyond what we may learn from textbooks or lectures: good literature settles deep within us so, when we write, we can summon what we’ve received from our predecessors—to emulate, to build.

Think about the books you’ve admired, the ones that have stayed with you in dreams. You can still remember how you felt when you came to the final paragraph. Every idea, every character, every sentence, every word has instructed you on how to write. Now it’s your turn: be confident in your familiarity of craft, in your ability to revise later, in your library within, and write your next story or essay or novel or memoir, illuminating all that you know, all that you are, and all that you’ve been called to share.

MY QUESTION TO YOU: What authors/books have influenced your writing most? How has your writing evolved because of what you’ve gleaned from literature?

*****************************

Renee Ronika Klug is a writer and English professor. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from Biola University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Long Island University. Her non-fiction, poetry, and fiction has been—or will be—published in Relief: A Christian Literary Expression, The Blackbird Press, The Penwood Review, and Burnside Writers Collective. In 2010, her short story “Fathers” received an Honorable Mention by Glimmer Train Press. The essays on her blog share what she has learned about overcoming—as a survivor of child abuse, a writer, an educator, a Christian, a wife, and a mother: www.quietanthem.blogspot.com. She is the founding editor of The Anthem Exposition, an online writing community for women to share their stories of having overcome any of life’s adversities: www.anthemexposition.com. Renee’s goal—in life and writing—is to see women healed and communities built. She lives with her husband, a composer and pianist, and their two young daughters. She is currently writing her spiritual memoir.

17 thoughts on “On Writing: Why Reading Matters

  1. So timely for me today. I just posted about The Hunger Games series–a type of book/series I would normally never read. But of course the experience of reading it taught me things I hadn’t considered in a long time. I think it’s a bad idea for a writer to read in the same genre all the time. While I’d never be able to write something like The Hunger Games, I certainly got a good lesson in conflict, tension, and lack of author intrusion by letting myself get lost in the three books.

  2. Wonderful post! I couldn’t agree more, and “reading as my MFA” has been my mantra for the past year. I can’t express how much I have learned by reading FOR CRAFT (vs. reading for pleasure). Even the bad books, I have stuck with, because I honestly feel I learn just as much from them and why they aren’t working as I do from a book that “does” work. I’ve never been a fan of “how to write” books, as I believe the best study of writing craft is exactly what Samuel Johnson says in the quote above. Thank you so much for a lovely post.

    1. Melissa,

      Thank you for the feedback. I’ve learned so much from reading: Hemingway (particularly in TSAR) teaches good summation of character in scene; Fitzgerald teaches perfect language (read “The Crack Up”); the Russians (especially Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov) are superb at interweaving philosophy without getting too heavy-handed (maybe THE BROTHERS gets a bit carried away); Jhumpa Lahiri (my living favorite) teaches detail and voice. Happy reading!

  3. I feel like I need to get back to reading because it will definitely help to inspire me. I also think that when you read a great writer, besides feeling a little bit of envy, you can see how a great scene can be written. Also, I just love it when you read something and the characters just fly off the page!

    1. I know what you mean, about characters jumping off the page! That’s what I aspire to. I’m currently reading THE HELP, and I can’t put that book down! Reading it has inspired three new short story ideas already, and the characters literally jump off the page.

    2. Well-written characters are essential to good stories! Readers usually need to like whom they’re going on the journey with. The few curmudgeons in fiction–Holden Caulfield, Ignatius J. Reilly, et al–have a strong voice, so their audacity carries the story (arguably, of course). If you need inspiration, go to the classics; you’ll likely learn so much in doing so. Best to you on your reading and writing.

  4. Great post. I completely agree that reading and writing go hand in hand. I also find that I’m influenced as much by “bad” books as I am by good ones. After putting down a book, I often ask myself, what was it that kept me turning pages, or what was it that made me decide not to pick it back up again.

    1. Thank you, Jessica. I’ve enjoyed some of the pieces/tweets you’ve contributed too. I know what you mean about “bad” books; I’ve found that many books I can’t finish are actually well-written. However, there’s something gimmicky to them. When I sense that the book is just a hat-trick, I close it. I, of course, won’t list examples here, but I’d be curious to see if other people share the same feeling about certain books. This begs some other questions: how important is it for writers to create genuine characters with compelling story? Or, is modern myth-making really just about who can tell a story in a way that hasn’t been told before? (This same debate can carry over into modern classical music).

      1. Ah, the hat trick. Well said. I am definitely turned off by a book that feels gimmicky, too.

        I also find it difficult to finish a book in which the author tells me everything, every detail, every nuance. I’d much rather the author infer some things, and let me come to my own conclusions about a character and his/her motivations. ( e.g. “She resented her husband because he cheated on her, but she stayed with him anyway.” vs. “She scratched at the lipstick stain on the collar, took a slow measured breath, and dropped his shirt into the washing machine.”)

        The Invisible Mountain by Carolina de Robertis, which I recently finished reading, is an amazing, lyrical example of showing, not telling.

C'mon, you MUST be thinking something.

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