Steven King, revered by most of the readers in our book group, warns: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
This makes me consider how exactly does reading influence your writing?
Over the past six years, we have read endlessly together in our book groups. One novel after another, quite a demanding schedule for each four-month session. I ask each participant to hand me what I call a “reflection paper ”after finishing each book, which I justify as ensurance that each person invests in the program. This discourages a tendency in some to simply sit back and listen with an occasional vague comment thrown in on the coattails of someone else’s testimony. Each reader has an opportunity to get thoughts down on paper, expand on their response to the group, with the spotlight all theirs as they put their words on an 8×11 piece of notebook paper. I remind them that it’s not school, I’m not grading anything, and the grammar or punctuation police will not be in attendance. Still, they struggle with this.
However, unimaginably, the reflection papers change with each book, and they improve and become insightful and original, and ultimately astonishing.
How does this happen? I’m not “teaching” and I’m not focusing on creative writing. They have their 79-cent composition book journals, yes, but where’s the thread between the reading and their worn down pencils?
In the prison, where many might wish they had superpowers, reading is what makes you more of a superhuman.
When we discuss the books we’ve just finished, as in any book club you might imagine, there are those who want to talk and share their ideas, often dominating the group a bit or flying off onto tangents. (Yes, I’m guilty of this too.) But there are also those who have trouble engaging, often a bit vacant, but not really- I’ve learned that there are demons in everyday prison life and the men have worries, and anxiety and often slip away into places I cannot reach. These men are content to be silent, although I am certain that they are glad to be sitting with us and are listening, taking in the experience.
Reflection papers encourage superheroes to transform from the reluctant conversationalist to the pundit on paper. This is the byproduct of reading that lets me peek in at the magic, talent and unique perspective of each participant. Reading has broadened their vocabulary, their subject knowledge has deepened, and reading helps them remember grammar without learning it formally.
The writing helps the readers overcome stress. It keeps their brains in shape as they listen while I read their papers aloud and share (where did this amazing trust come from?) their prose. Writing helps cultivate what I’ve learned is a “theory of mind” – when you are able to read thoughts and feelings of people, broadening imagination and empathy.
Most of all, the books are a source of inspiration, which translates into wonderful writing.
• “Unforgiving desolation that only a romantic spirit can appreciate”
• “The smallness of we Kings of Nothing against the unsympathetic immensity of nature”
• “…wandering away from his loss, lost in the struggles of what ifs and if-onlys.”
• “America is one big concession stand ready to offer you a hotdog, bag of sugar or ammunition.”
• “The ceaseless torment, the inability to find respite in wake or dream. It was like an old sweater to me.”
These lines make my heart leap. Science confirms that reading has a positive influence on your brain: blood flows to it and brain functioning and connectivity improve. No good writing is possible without reading. Everything you learn as a reader, you can access as a writer afterward. These book group guys now have an ace up their sleeve, they can now read a book with an eye for writing, and they may not even realize it.