Good readers are rarer than good writers

Before creative-writing classes existed, writers began by being readers, says Martina Evans. I don’t think things have changed that much

 

Reading is more important than writing

Roberto Bolaño

Before creative-writing classes existed, writers began by being readers. I don’t think things have changed that much. Today’s passionate readers find their way to classes and rarely need more than a bit of nudging from their teachers. The students who struggle most are those who haven’t read enough. They need to be taught to read like writers. This not only teaches the craft – and greater respect for the process – but also deepens the joy of reading. When students realise that this is what they need to do – or, even better, fall in love with reading – the miracles begin.

 

I have been an addicted reader since I was three, yet I never feel that I read deeply enough. I agree with Jorge Luis Borges, who said that good readers are much rarer than good writers. Flaubert remarked, in a letter to the poet Louise Colet, “What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half a dozen books.”

That remark has always held great appeal for me. How wonderful to have read only Shakespeare but to know him completely. Or the Bible. I’ve always envied those serious Christians immersed in their Bible. All those stories and poems, all that shared wisdom. How much it would deepen my understanding of James Joyce or Emily Dickinson, who steeped themselves in the great book.

The novelist, poet and critic Robert Penn Warren recommended that writers take “anti-jobs”, which is to say jobs that don’t steal time from their writing.

When I was young I thought that working in a library could be that anti-job, but of course librarians don’t get to sit around reading books. And I would feel guilty stealing time from my employer, as Penn Warren urges.

Then, in 2014, I got the opportunity to join the Royal Literary Fund’s Reading Round scheme. I couldn’t believe my luck. Could this be my anti-job at last?

The fund, which is a charity that supports writers, was employing a group of them to set up reading groups that would teach participants to read like writers, to read deeply, to read the classics. What could be better for a writer? What could be more enjoyable? A year later, it still doesn’t feel like work. It’s an adventure.

The poet Julia Copus and the novelist Katharine McMahon were our mentors in the first year. Their remit was deceptively simple and highly effective, with benefits that went beyond my expectations.

Every week I bring copies of one story and one poem to the group, where it is read aloud and then discussed. Everyone focuses on the texts, and there are no distractions. We don’t judge the texts but learn from them. It’s okay to wonder about the meaning. There is no wrong or right answer. No one considers him- or herself an expert; humility is encouraged.

As one group member, Kraige, says, “When I talk about the reading group with friends I often refer to it as ‘creative reading’. Because the best stuff doesn’t spoon-feed: it leaves gaps for us to fill in, ponder over.”

Kenneth, another member, talks about his back pain “magically disappearing, as if I had had a dose of endorphins. I think it is the collective focus of the group that creates this effect. In a way we are sharing our mass of experience which we bring to the reading.”

And it is true. There is a sense of a strong connection within the group. McMahon agreed when I rather sheepishly mentioned a “sacred feeling”. She said that she thought the whole process was about love.

Martina Evans is the author of Petrol and Burnfort, Las Vegas

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