I have loved writing from a very young age. (No, seriously. Since before I could write in full sentences.) As a five-year-old, I’m pretty certain I defaced every writing surface in the house with what I thought was a pretty awesome little line of poetry: Love, love, love is hot.
Two years later, I rewrote the ending to Gone with the Wind on a single page of my father’s stationary. (No offense, Margaret Mitchell, but it had to be done.) Then my first writing classes came shortly after, as Christian devotional writer Jeannette Lockerbie was the mother of one of my teachers when I was growing up on the mission field in Bangladesh. Every time Mrs. Lockerbie visited the country she would bless us with her writing wisdom, which for me was from about second grade onward. Though I don’t remember all her rules of the craft, she had some that stuck with me. The first and most important was read, read, read. If anyone said to her (or her daughter, my teacher, who was also a great writer) that they would like to write, her response was always the same: What are you reading? If they couldn’t answer, she was likely to tell them quite politely that something had to be done about that or they’d get nowhere.
The truth is, yes, technically you could write without a love of reading, but you are quite likely to be shoddy at it. Fantastic writers are in love with words and can’t get enough of them. Fantastic writers are also students of the best authors in the world. I would add to this widely heralded rule of reading and writing that great writers don’t just read, they read with pen in hand. (I’ve broken a separate writing rule from another mentor in that sentence, but I’ll save it for another post. If you can spot it in the comments, you win.)
While not every book you read will be pen- or highlighter-worthy, it’s a practice worth developing. A lot of people will make the mistake of assuming all the circling and underlining is only for non-fiction, marking words to live by or facts to win an argument. However, fiction—provided you are reading authors worth your time—should also be read with pen in hand. As you come across beautiful sentences or paragraphs, those that move you or inspire you to write better, mark them. Memorize them. I don’t care if it’s as silly as the brilliantly witty line from Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It—“There is no god but Mummy, and Daddy is her prophet”—or something much more moving and intricate.
The first fiction I recall memorizing was a line from the original ending of Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations. (Yes, there is an original ending, of which Dickens’ idiot novelist friend did not approve, because he had no taste and thus in my humble opinion was a crap writer. Never heard of Edward Bulwer-Lytton? He’s credited with the line: “It was a dark and stormy night.” As well as: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” But I still think he should have been tarred and feathered for the blaspheme he perpetuated by talking Dickens out of the most beautiful ending of all time.)
It went like this (SPOILER ALERT: Pip and Estella don’t end up together) and, yes, I still know it be heart, 25 years after my first reading:
“For, in her face and in her touch, and in her voice,
she gave me the assurance that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching,
and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.”
The beauty of it was both the poetic justice, the true-to-real-life lack of a neatly happy ending (sorry, Ms. Mitchell, I learned my lesson), and the way Dickens deftly uses repetition and rhythm to soothe his readers as they come to the very last line. I wrote this out and pinned it to my wall at age 14 like the nerdy word lover that I was, and I’ve been doing it ever since. Sure, now and then everyone needs to read something altogether un-quotable. I’ve gone through phases where all I wanted was silly chick lit, plain and simple. (I’m not gonna lie to you, friends, Bridget Jones’ Diary changed my life in 2001, and remains the pinnacle achievement of the genre.) But currently I’m on a UK mystery kick that just won’t die. (Kate Atkinson and Tana French are only marginally quotable, but they have amazing vocabularies and—trust me—they are to die for.) As you can see, get me out of my head for two hours, please, is often my reading motto.
But the world is still brimming with incredible fiction talent and I adore learning at their feet for the simple price of a book: Khaled Hosseini, Jude Morgan, Ian McEwan—just to name a few. So when you come across memorable sentences, take note. Read them repeatedly until you understand exactly what makes them work. Write them in your own hand. Say them out loud. Love them until you tire of them. (But we both know you won’t.)
I promise you, this won’t just make you an obnoxiously well-read bibliophile who quotes Jude Morgan at dinner parties, it will make you a better writer, no matter what your genre.
So, my friends, do tell. Name one of your favorite authors (because, puh-lease, I know you have more than just one), and do share what books you are currently reading. Better yet, share a wonderful line that has stuck with you from a book. I can’t wait to read all about your love affair with words!