Can you learn to write by reading books?

Copy Cats


I don’t know how many times I have read blogs and other articles about the writing craft that emphasize how important reading is to the writing life.

While I do not disagree with the thrust of that concept, I believe the correlation between reading and writing is not one to one.

The two pursuits, reading and writing, are related but also quite distinct. Most authors bring a life long love of reading to their writing desk.  That love is perhaps the greatest motivator for them when they make the threshold decision to attempt to put words on paper.

But a subtle trap for writers is their desire to produce words that sing like those of authors they admire.

However, the reason those words of their favorite authors sing is because in almost every case the established writer has paid many years of dues honing his style and voice.

Style and voice are the intangible stock in trade which makes the work of each author unique, for good or ill.

The worst thing an author can be is a copy cat.

I don’t mean a plagiarist, someone who simply reproduces the words of another and claims them as his own.

Rather a copy cat author is one whose goal is to write like someone else, even if that admirable person is a virtuoso.

For instance, yesterday I blogged about the magnificent experience I had this week of listening to James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues. The writing in that book is as good as any I have read, bar none.

Burke uses the page as a canvass on which he paints each scene with such skill and beauty that he transports the reader to another place and time. Once he has the visual backdrop in place, he marches his characters on stage, a stage already set in such a way that the reader has a sense of where the action will go.

Here’s my confession.

I will never be able to write like Jame Lee Burke.

If I try to write like him, my words will look like a parody of his style, a cheap imitation of the real thing.

So what am I to do as an author if I know the style I most admire is beyond my grasp?

The options are clear.

1. I can give up writing and say to hell with it.

2. I can set my mind to producing something as close to Burke’s writing as possible.

3. I can learn from his writing, study his techniques and develop my own writing style and voice.

Option three is the clear choice for me.

Take this passage from Master Burke, the first paragraph of his Swan Peak:

Clete Purcel had heard of people who sleep without dreaming, but either because of the era and neighborhood in which he had grown up, or the later experiences that had come to define his life, he could not think of sleep as anything other than an uncontrolled descent into a basement where the gargoyles turned somersaults like circus midgets.

I can’t point to a word in that passage and say, “That’s why it works.”

But I know all those words strung together in just that particular way put me in Clete Purcel’s head and make me wonder what he is about to do.

Burke could have written, “His bad dreams always prevented Clete Purcel from sleeping through the night.”

The two passages kind of say the same thing.

But Burke’s style elevates a dry observation to a moment when the reader obtains a crucial insight into Clete Purcel’s psyche.

Reading great writers is something all authors should do.

But how a writer learns from them is the tricky part.






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