A Writer’s Apprenticeship

One of the first things I ask writers is who are you reading? I ask this because
I’m always looking for new authors and poets, and to be honest, I read so dang
much that I’m often ready to start a new book. It puzzles me when someone who
professes to be a writer admits that they don’t read. Reading and writing go
hand and in hand in my book. I learn so much every evening when I cozy up on
the sofa with a book, the pages opening me up to new ideas, new ways to express
familiar ideas, new language, new forms, new structures.
Several years ago I started an apprenticeship that has been
very fruitful to my writing. I began by pinpointing three authors that I’d
found influential. I set out to read everything each of them had written. And
then I read some literary criticism about their work and even some of each
author’s letters if they were published. I was on a hunt to see who had been
identified as their influences. Then I took that list and tried to read
everything those authors had written. I looked for similarities – themes, syntax,
diction. The I took another step down the family tree, who had influenced the
authors who’d influenced the authors that influenced me? Well, you get the
picture; I had plenty to read. And then when I’d reached some dead-ends, I
started looking for my literary siblings. Who had been influenced by the same
authors that had influenced me? What were they writing?
By following my writing lineage up and down the family tree,
I learned about writers obscure and famous. I learned to read more critically
the work of others and my own. I read older and more recent authors. It is a vast
apprenticeship that hasn’t ended yet.

I encourage you to try it. You’ll learn a lot about how
styles come and go, themes disappear and resurface, and how you are built as an
author by everything around you. And you’ll read a lot. Stephen King wrote, “If
you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.
Simple as that.” I tend to agree with him.

~Erin Coughlin Hollowell

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