Image: Lynn Friedman
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, whenever Alice stumbles upon a bottle labeled “Drink Me” or “Eat Me,” she ingests them with the naïveté of a child who consumes everything in her path, unaware of how they may change her in ways she doesn’t expect. I was much like Alice as a child, only instead of consuming strange substances, I devoured books. Books had a magnetic pull for me, as if each cover said “Read Me” and I couldn’t resist.
That’s why I started writing, after all: I wanted to recreate that sensation of irresistibility in the stories I made up to keep myself entertained. So it seems fitting then, in graduate school, to come full circle and reread books that I treasured as a child. This quarter I’m a TA for a class called Children’s Literature, and while I don’t have any teaching responsibilities for the course (instead I have grading and administrative duties), I still am reading all of the books for the course and attending the lectures.
And what a joy it is to pick up book likes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban and relive the feeling these books inspire: the pleasure of being so deeply immersed in a world and a story that you never want to leave, even after you’ve turned the last page. Of course, I also have also experienced similar feelings when reading literature for “adults,” whether it be genre fiction or literary fiction, but that sense of total abandonment to the world of imagination is harder to find. And it’s something I’m always searching for as both a reader and a writer.
I think it’s absolutely necessary as a writer to maintain your connection to the books you’ve loved in the past in order to move forward. As a writer, and particularly as a grad student, I read a ton, but it’s not always words that enchant me, nor is it always stories that feed my soul. I often feel like I’m pouring out my soul onto the page with every story I produce, and I think it’s important to replenish that source of inspiration, like recharging the groundwater in an aquifer so that it doesn’t run dry.
In creative writing courses, I’ve sometimes had professors who want us to read a particular text in order to see how a good writer does this technique in this or that way, so we have a sort of model for our own writing. I think reading in order to understand the skills of other writers is valuable, although I don’t think it necessarily means that you’ll be able to replicate those techniques yourself. Nor do I think you should aim to write like “so and so” did. But perhaps if you can recognize how other writers succeed, you can navigate your own pathway to success, or so the thinking goes.
Still, as a writer who is still struggling to find my own voice, who is in the midst of anguish as I toil through every revision, I need to read for fun more than anything. I have to carve out the time for it if I want to stay sane. And not only do I have to read books I love, but I have to sit down and think about what I’ve read for more than just a few minutes. I’ve kept a journal for this purpose ever since I was twelve. My journals, for the most part, are a record of the books I’ve read and the thoughts I had about them in freely written unorganized sentences. And I’m really glad I’ve been journaling like this for so long because now I have a box of old journals spanning 12 years— literally half my life— that I can dig back through and see what captured my interest about what I was reading at different points in my life.
Children are like sponges. They absorb pretty much everything that they hear or read, and then they drip back out these bizarre phrases or ideas that echo what they were fed but seem completely original. I’m not saying that my story ideas were better when I was kid, but I’m certain that I retained the essence of the books I loved as a child in my mind. In fact, they’re still stewing into ideas that surface in the stories I write today. I’m discovering at this juncture in my life that I need to reconnect with the stories that have shaped me into who I am in order to write the stories that will define me in the future. But the continual re-shaping of myself as writer through reading is a process that I hope to sustain for my entire life.