Learning from readers

At one time I devoured magazines about writing. They provided something I could find nowhere else. Even today I’ll sometimes buy one, though they tend to lie untouched at the bottom of my reading pile. I think that I’m still drawn to them because of a hunger to return to the basics of writing and storytelling. I think that I’m always trying to reclaim that first spark of inspiration that made me want to write.

Writing is a solitary craft, and friends who don’t share the interest quickly tire of the obsessions of the budding writer. Those writers’ magazines—and now the ubiquitous blogs that replicate all of the same themes—fill the need for that conversation. And they provide the basic, specialized information a young writer needs. There is also the simple truth that reading about writing inspires one to write.

But that endless parade “researching your historical story” and “how to get an agent’s attention” quickly grows tedious. The blogs and magazines are big on lists: “ten steps to successful revision;” “nine steps to a successful query;” “thirteen rules for writing dialogue.” Let’s face it—it doesn’t take long before you’ve learned all that you can from this sort of thing. The writer never stops learning—never—but one soon outgrows these introductory comments.

Of course I still find inspiration in reading about writing. I return again and again to A Passion For Narrative, by Jack Hodgins, A Writer’s Notebook, by Somerset Maugham, the essay “On Fairy-Stories,” by J.R.R. Tolkien, and a dozen others. These sorts of things take one back to the basics of writing, but not in the same way. This is more simplicity as elegance, the basics of a mature style—not basic writing in the sense of what first drove the creative spark.

This week I spent a couple of hours talking about writing with a group of talented Grade Six and Seven students. We talked about storytelling, the writing life, and about stories they had written to a premise I set for them.

I often write for readers of this age—though in this context they are readers as potential writers. They hold the answer to that basic question of what initially creates a storyteller. For them, writing is still about reading, still purely for the love of stories. Their creative writing is uncluttered by technique and preconceptions. It is still strongly driven by a desire to create the sort of stories they love to read.

I talked to the group about how finding inspiration in great stories was still true for even the best writers. I told the class that reading tales such as Treasure Island and Moonfleet inspired my friend Iain Lawrence to write his sea stories for young readers. Coincidentally, this week I also read the wonderful When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. It is even more clearly inspired by another great childhood favourite of mine—A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle.

Since then I’ve been thinking about the nature of reading from a writer’s perspective. About how books feed the passion, and help us to overcome what can often be a challenging task. As a result I have indeed just revisited that initial spark of inspiration. I learned from these readers that I need to read even more, and redouble my efforts to tell stories as well as the storytellers who inspire me.

As much as I love writing for young adult readers, I’ve realized over time that I also tremendously enjoy talking to them about writing. The real question is whether they learn as much from me as I learn from them.

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Bruce Wishart
Whimsies. Sometimes about writing.
Sometimes about folklore. Sometimes
about the sea, or life on the coast.
And sometimes not.