Monday, April 18, 2011

Great Writers are Readers First

Brent Ghelfi stepping in for Vicki on Monday.

Lots of people want to write a book. They have a brilliant idea, a personal story to tell, a gift to give the world. Motives vary: fame, fortune, maybe a movie deal, maybe simple catharsis—a way to release the pent-up demons.

One fellow who falls in the brilliant idea category asked Clive Cussler a question at a public library event a few years ago. The gist of it was this: “I’ve come up with the most amazing plot. I’ll tell it to you, you write it, and we’ll both make gobs of money. What do you think?” Needless to say, Cussler wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea.

We all know that writing rarely leads to fame or riches. Most writers labor in a literary coalmine, lit by the flickering light of a computer screen, pounding on a keyboard for pennies a word. When people ask, I tell them to write because they love it, or because something inside drives them to do it. Writing for money is like buying a Powerball ticket and believing that this time, today, you’ll win, and tomorrow you’ll wake up a millionaire.

I understand those who write to achieve catharsis. Some people need to set their story to paper, to organize it into a logical form, tame it or set it free. No matter whether one person or a million ever reads the story, it simply must be told. So write it. Good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, the story is the thing and nothing else matters.

But writing something good, worthwhile, meaningful—however we define literary merit—requires talent, discipline, and tenacity. More importantly, it requires an intangible skill, a way of seeing the world that’s unique, or at least tweaked a bit from the way most of us see things. We all know that. And we all recognize “it” when we read it. It’s like the old Supreme Court definition of pornography: “I’ll know it when I see it.” At some time or another, we’ve all tried to identify the element that binds great writing.

I believe the touchstone shared by great writers is that they were great readers first. Walk into a writer’s home and you’re sure to find books. Fiction and non-fiction in an array that cuts across genre lines, whatever “genre” means any more. Old titles and new titles, many of them still carrying weight. “I remember reading her books that summer in Spain. His books took me through college.” This is the way writers are made. Reading forges a literary identity, one that eventually becomes a singular voice, a voice that tells the story that changes the life of a future writer.

Visit Brent at


Vicki Delany said...

Thanks Brent. I agree wholeheartedly. I know creative writing teachers whose hearts just sink when someone shows up in class and says "I never read fiction."

Rick Blechta said...

Great post, Brent. Thanks for writing it.

Donis Casey said...

"Great writers are great readers" is my catchphrase when teaching writing workshops, Brent!