‘Which should I do? Read, or write?… There’s not much of a record, in the memoirs of writers, about the tension I have just described, the silent competition between reading and writing. I don’t know if many writers feel it. I do know some writers seem to resent reading, to resent literature even – as if it were unfair competition.’
So says Larry McMurtry in  He describes something that I think many writers feel, but hate to admit. They know they ought to be reading; all the best advice is for new writers, in particular, to read as widely as possible. And yet it can also feel like a displacement activity (and most of us have quite enough of those).
Depending on your frame of mind, reading can also be discouraging. There are days when it feels as if every other writer is better than you. There are days, conversely, when it feels as if many poorer writers have somehow landed more lucrative publishing deals. On days like these it is probably better to put the book down and go for a walk.
Yet writers who tale their craft seriously need to read. A lot. It feels almost too obvious to state.
Student writers sometimes get slightly affronted by the suggestion that they should be reading the works of others. They don’t have time, they argue. Or they’re concerned that they will be unable to think original thoughts, if their mind is full of someone else’s exemplary words.
Certainly, time can feel very scarce, when you are meeting the demands of assignments and coursework. One new student asked me why the OCA does not have reading weeks, as a traditional university might. The answer, of course, is because the courses are not structured in the same way and a student can allot themselves a reading week (or two) whenever they wish.
There may well be a case, however, for suggesting that a certain amount of reading is done before plunging into the course materials and starting to fret about hand-ins and deadlines.
As for that fear of other writers’ work invading your brain, I think we all have to relax about this. Seeing how others tackle the writing issues we all face is often instructive – as is seeing how not to do it. We are unlikely to inadvertently reproduce someone else’s ideas or phrases. Taking time out from our own writing will usually mean we return to it reinvigorated and newly inspired. I promise!
I’m going to end with the advice of Stephen King, who was unequivocal about the matter. ‘The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with our pen or word processor.’
Is reading a necessity for writers – or a hindrance? What’s your experience?
 Larry McMurtry (1999), Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond. USA & Canada: Simon and Schuster [This edition 2001].
 Stephen King (2000) , On Writing [My edition] Great Britain: Hodder and Stoughton Pg.171.
Featured Image: Jane Horton