Home > Random Musings, Writing, Writing Advice > To Read is to Learn: Chasing the Muse

To Read is to Learn: Chasing the Muse


Whenever I’m feeling uninspired, I read some poetry by Ted Hughes. I may be the only American woman who does that. If I can, I’ll also read something by Pablo Neruda (if I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll read the Spanish). And there are occasions that call for the reading of “Instructions” by Neil Gaiman. (If I’m feeling very silly, there are times you can get me to read this out loud with a British accent.)

When I’m reading someone whose work I admire, I feel a bit like I’m peeking behind the scenes. I want to figure out how it works, why it works, and what about it I like best. Sometimes, you just read something and think, “That was amazing,” but you can’t put your finger on why. I like the Why.

If I stop reading, or don’t make the time for it, I stop learning. Each short story, poem, or novel has something to offer. Some bit of magic that I might not have seen before. Sometimes, it’s all a matter of permission. Permission? you might ask. Yes. Permission. Let’s say you encounter something with a unique narrator. This might give you the courage to write your own unique, unreliable narrator. It might be the best way to tell a certain story. And maybe you weren’t comfortable writing it that way, because it seemed odd or out there.

Take Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” or Jean Ryhs’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Each has a unique narrator (Rhys’s novel has multiple perspectives). So does Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays. I read the latter one just a few years back, for the very first time. And it was a book stopped me in its tracks. I’d never found something quite like that, before. The snippets. The filling the gaps. The questions it left me with. It was enchanting.

When I was applying for graduate programs, I briefly considered getting an MA in Creative Writing. Instead, I got one in English Literature. For me, that was a good decision, because it helped me build upon the skills I already had (getting my BA in English Lit.). It exposed me to a world of books I never would’ve discovered on my own. It introduced me to literary theories I never would’ve read (and a few I wished I hadn’t. I’m looking at you, Edward Said.)

I think it made me a better writer. Sure, it made me a better academic writer, but it also made a better creative writer, too. I have a wealth of material to draw from. I can make references that amuse me and (hopefully) otherwise. I can draw on traditions from the past. I have precursors – both male and female.

When in doubt, read. Read as much as you can. If you don’t read, you can’t write. You won’t know what’s going on in your genre of interest – or in other ones. Even reading a bad novel can teach you something.

What do YOU do when you feel like your muse is hiding?

  1. November 8, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    Reading is a great source of not only inspiration, but clarity. I think the writing “mind”, when active, holds everyday life at bay. Slowly, real life leaks in, and clouds our thoughts. The feeling your on to a great moment, fingers poised over your keyboard… Then life’s phone rings.

    Some focus glitches are deeper. I find sinking into some classic reads (On my current work, I re-read Fletcher Knebel’s “Dark Horse”) helps re-build the barrier I need to continue on, my mind’s eye clear once again.

    Enjoyed your post as always,


  2. Andrea
    November 8, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    We’ve talked about this A LOT in the classes I’m taking right now. We say over and over and over again that if we want our students to be better writers, we need to give them examples of what good writing looks like, and the easiest way to do that is by having them read good writers.

    • Ali
      November 9, 2010 at 9:41 am

      Oh, definitely! Start them when they’re young!

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