It’s an absolute necessity that anyone who wishes to write must read, and read a lot.
Not only is reading proven to improve your writing and help you learn, but reading also exposes you to creative methods you may not have been aware of before. That goes for any creative media. The more you consume, the more you learn and grow as a writer.
For instance, without reading poets like Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, I would have never known that some of poetry’s greatest works contain zero rhymes. Without watching Memento, I would have never realized that time doesn’t have to be linear in the films I create.
Consuming media doesn’t just teach you, it shapes you.
When I was a young writer, I spent a decent amount of time struggling to find my unique voice. Instead of digging inside to try and find a voice that wasn’t fully formed yet, I studied writers who I loved and attempted to understand their voice.
As a consequence of inundating myself with all the works of one creative at a time, I found that my style of writing, and my voice, adapted as the voices I was reading changed. And while I was worried that I might be stealing J.K. Rowling’s voice at first, I realized that
- I would never achieve Rowling’s exact voice, and
- the voice I thought sounded like Rowling’s was simply my voice, evolved
Much like children are sponges of knowledge and language as they develop, I was a sponge for writing styles. If I found a writer I liked, I would assimilate what I liked about their writing style to my own craft, and grow as a creative in the process.
Except I was only doing that for the writers I liked …
But what about the writers I didn’t like?
Disliked and Discarded
It took a really long time for me to be interested in reading and writing. When I was 7, if you pulled a book-shaped gift out of your purse I would run and hide. You can keep it, Grandma!
While my peers discovered the wonder of Harry Potter as each new book released at midnight, I was fast asleep, absorbing knowledge from the infomercials playing absently on my tiny Barbie television.
Even as I joined the ranks of Potterheads, and eventually graduated to classic literature, I’ve held onto that run-and-hide tendency in a different way: my strong opinions.
You see, there are writers whom I love, writers whom I think are okay, and writers whom I hate so passionately they may as well have killed a puppy right in front of me and used its fur to bookmark a page in their book.
While I’m not proud of it, my dislike of a work has indeed tainted my opinion of some writers.
I hate Darren Aronofsky.
I thought I liked him when he directed Black Swan. But nope. I hate him.
After going to see mother! in theaters, I was confused, disappointed, and downright angry at what I had just wasted 16 dollars and two hours of my life sitting through. (If you haven’t seen it … don’t. Plus I’m about to spoil it.)
A religious allegory? Really?
As the credits rolled on the most pretentious, faux avante garde, hyper masculine power trip retelling of the Bible, I had nothing more to say but: What the f*ck?
I’m happy it bombed at the box office.
Since seeing that film, I know that I will never see another film done by Aronofsky … especially if he has a writing credit.
I feel the same about Ralph Waldo Emerson. But he’s dead and not an “auteur,” so he gets a little more of a pass than Darren.
There are writers who, besides not connecting with their work, I’ve actively rejected—especially what they offer to their art form.
And yeah, that’s extremely petty of me.
But I’m working on it. Because I started thinking of it this way:
Stephen King is unequivocally a master writer. His book, On Writing, has even become a required text in college-level writing classes around the country. And yet there are writers out there who can’t stand him.
So what do these writers do? If I felt about King the way I feel about Aronofsky, I’d gather up all the copies of IT I could find and throw them into a fire, and I certainly wouldn’t read On Writing.
But then I wouldn’t benefit from the knowledge he has, and that he shares, which is so invaluable in that book.
So, as much as it pains me to say it … you can’t disregard a writer (especially a master writer) just because you don’t like their work.
Swallow Your Pride
If we’re really going to “check ourselves before we wreck ourselves” when it comes to writers we dislike, then we should definitely drop any notion we may have that we’re too good to learn.
Don’t deny it.
That’s a small part of why we discredit the work of other writers we don’t like. We think we’re better than them.
In the case of Darren Aronofsky, I remember ranting about how I could write a film 10 times better than the one I just saw. For someone who hates Stephen King, being able to write a better creepy clown is a challenge that has probably crossed their minds as well.
Cool. But we haven’t written something better, have we?
Instead, we’re the ones paying 16 dollars to hate-watch a film that was produced by a major film studio, and Darren’s already collected his gargantuan paycheck.
So swallow that pride, because you ain’t all that. Neither am I.
While we may resent the Aronofskys, the Kings, the Emersons, or the skeezy content marketing gurus that will go unnamed, they’re out there getting reads, getting exposure, and getting paid for what they are creating. In some instances, they are even getting awards for excellence, and are excellent.
Obviously they’re doing something we’re not. And if we want to be in their shoes, then we have to learn from them.
Moving on from good old Darren, let’s discuss two writers a little more universally hated and revered, who can teach us a little something about excellence.
The Greats and the Not-So-Greats
Scott Fitzgerald, a literary master known for The Great Gatsby, and Stephanie Meyer, the infamous creator of Twilight.
Much like Shakespeare, Fitzgerald is considered to be a master of his art. There isn’t a high school graduate I’ve met who hasn’t read The Great Gatsby.
I’m not a huge fan of that book. I think it’s too heavy-handed with its metaphors, and I dislike how many people use the story to glamorize the ’20s, when it only depicts a very specific segment of society: rich and white. Before you argue with me, remember that the poor characters in the novel wound up dead—one being an abuser’s mistress and the other being Gatsby’s killer.
But Fitzgerald is a master because he wrote something that evoked what many readers were feeling: disillusioned in a time when ignoring uncertainty kept everyone happy. His work also serves to teach young writers how to craft metaphors that reflect certain themes in the broader sense of a novel.
So while I may dislike Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, I was able to learn a great deal from it. When you want to learn craft, there’s no place better than “the masters,” even if you fall asleep reading their work.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Twilight phenomenon was something many did not expect. Here comes this book, written by a Mormon who had a dream about a vampire lover in a field of flowers, and suddenly the world is at war over Edward vs. Jacob.
Since the novels were written by a first-time author, of course they aren’t very good. And many people hate her work, and what her franchise became (50 Shades of Grey anyone?).
Except I would argue (from my brand new high horse) that we can learn a lot from Stephanie Meyer.
This 30-something mom from Connecticut tapped into a genre that has sustained for hundreds of years, and made it accessible for young adults. Vampires, who were created with seduction in mind, weren’t beings of evil driven away by garlic. They sparkled, they were super-powerful, and they were vegetarians … but they were still incredibly seductive (while also being chivalrous). Werewolves? Not monsters with a killer impulse, but beings that protected their land and their people.
She gave young readers (and their parents) exactly what they wanted. All the good and none of the boring. The literary world came to revile the works, but the rest of the world still holds those novels in high esteem.
So what can we learn from an artistically hated, but commercially successful, non-master writer?
Even if you’re not “good,” you can still be successful … and there are still ways to be original and inventive with subject matter that has existed for hundreds of years.
Stephanie Meyer’s strength was not her literary prowess or her way with prose. Your strength doesn’t have to be that either. Her strength was her idea’s innovativeness and salability. If you can find a niche, or a gap in the field that you can fit into, then go for that niche. If you aren’t a great writer, but come up with great ideas, play up that strength.
Despite all the jokes made at Meyer’s expense, her books will absolutely be remembered. She knew what she could do with the talent that she had, and she went for it.
So how do you learn from writers you hate without becoming them?
Do It Differently
Well, as much as you need to know what kind of writer you want to be, you also need to know what kind of writer you don’t want to be.
If you read The Great Gatsby and hate Fitzgerald’s green light metaphor, strive to create a better one—or just a different one.
If you saw mother! and hated not only how blatantly it retold the story of the Bible, but also its fetishized depiction of violence against women, strive to write something that challenges that depiction.
If you liked the genre of a specific writer, but didn’t like their voice, write for that genre with your own evolved voice.
By understanding what you disliked about a writer’s work, you can achieve a greater understanding of what you want to see in a story and how to create it … by knowing how not to create it.
E.L. James wanted way more sex in Twilight, so she wrote 50 Shades of Grey. It’s far from a masterful retelling of Meyer’s works, but it did what James (and millions of women across the world) wanted: it “fixed” an aspect of the story.
So here’s my challenge to you.
Hate things. Despise them. Burn an effigy of a writer who has done you wrong.
But then sit down and analyze exactly what made you hate that thing.
- Was it the writer’s tone, their style; was it the story itself?
- What about the story made you hate it? Its predictability? The themes it presented?
- Was there a trope utilized that you’re tired of seeing?
- Did it perpetuate a societal norm that you’d like to see challenged instead?
Also think about what that hateful piece of writing did right, especially if it’s achieved some form of success.
Besides what you don’t like and don’t want to do in your own writing, what are some techniques the writer used that contributed to the work’s success? How can you utilize that to your advantage?
By all means hate things, but don’t let the time you spent on them be in vain.