What you should be reading if you want to write (answer: anything)
Last Saturday (September 22nd 2012) The Guardian devoted a long feature to the art of creative non fiction, canvassing the opinion of many writers who have made their mark in the genre. I taught autobiographical and biographical writing at Goldsmiths College for several years and it is still a subject close to my heart.
I like this comment from the nature/travel writer Robert Macfarlane because it confirms my conviction that you can’t split the writer from the reader.
Richard Sennett, in his brilliant book on the idea of craft, estimates that it takes 10,000 hours to learn to play the violin well or to make an admirable cabinet. It takes even longer to become a writer, because before you become a writer you must first become a reader. Every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write; this continues to be true throughout a writer’s career. Reading bad writers can be as useful as reading good ones.
Macfarlane maintains that it doesn’t matter what you read. Apparently science fiction writer JG Ballard rarely read fiction, preferring instead the passive sentences and dense prose of police reports and medical journals.
I don’t get much pleasure from reading this kind of professional/technical writing because often it seems to be deliberately obtuse, using complex sentence structures for no good reason other than that the author seems to think it gives weight to the message that the actual content can’t deliver. Old fashioned trade-unionese (at least I hope it’s old fashioned) was one of the worst offenders. I remember having to sit through a speech that began ‘Having the decision reached by the intractable management communicated to me, I was cognisant of…’ Yeeha!
However, when I was learning to drive I was struck by the clarity of the road markings on one particular section of Finchley Road in North West London. There was real skill in the while line calligraphy that allowed drivers to position the car in the best possible place to turn right into Hoop Lane and I always felt that it deserved an award. Not a town planning medal – if one exists – but some kind of recognition for the sign painter cum author.
Good communication should be savoured where ever it is, on the page or the tarmac, in an instruction manual or in the small print of the leaflet tucked into the pill packet.
However, I still think if you want to write great prose you should be reading great poetry. Or is the back of the corn flake packet just as good…?