R is for Reading

I know, you all want to hear more about AWP, right? Well, I can’t help it. I got so much inspiration from there, that I have to liberally sprinkle it throughout my posts.

One thing that came up again and again was that writers must read. A literary journal will ask that you peruse previous issues before submitting. Most periodicals, in fact, will ask the same. They don’t want you to submit a story about a boy wizard with a scar on his head when they have, in fact, just published one. A magazine will take queries of a similar vein, aimed at the same audience (their audience), but they do not want stories that echo articles recently published. A newspaper will prefer that you submit items of local interest; the smaller the paper, the more locally focused it will be.

In a session at AWP in which we were discussing how to please editors, Jeffrey Levine, the editor of Tupelo Press, put it thusly, “There is a home for a lot of writing. And your job as a writer is to find that home. How you do that is by reading.” I’ve seen numerous variations on this advice from many different directions. There’s no way around it. You have to know your market, your competition, and your marketplace.

So that’s your job, then. Which, to my mind, is not such a bad row to hoe. I love to read. Don’t get me wrong – some reading is work. I write reviews for some national publications, and when I get a book that doesn’t interest me, it’s sheer drudgery. But when I get something good, that can be so much fun. In the past, I’ve read for work doing manuscript critiques and of course the compulsory reading involved in either working on a book as an editor or representing it as a publicist.

These days, though, I’m reading with a different aim in mind. I went to AWP with the goal of finding out more about getting published, and came away with a few tote bags full of journals (yes, four). I now have these stacks of journals sitting near my couch, and I am hopeful that this weekend, I can begin at least perusing them, to find out which ones I might want to submit to. I spoke to most of the editors of the journals I collected, so I am encouraged. (In fact, I have never been asked to submit so much in my life. But they haven’t seen the work yet, have they?)


In addition to the journal pieces, I have a couple of book ideas in my head. For the first one, I have been reading books on grief, loss and death for more than a year. It isn’t all I’ve been reading, mind you, but I definitely see a trend. I have a stack of books here waiting for me on that project. Currently, I am reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, after watching the PBS series. This relates directly to my work, since my book is about my best friend’s death from cancer. Other books for this project include Nox by Anne Carson, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down by Rachael Hanel, Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen, Stiff by Mary Roach, and many others. I guess you could say I’m making a survey. My own book will be creative nonfiction – not quite memoir, not quite straight nonfiction – with some poetry mixed in. I also am looking at some fiction, just to be thorough, like The Hollow series by Jessica Verday and My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. They all relate to each other with themes of friendship, loss, grief or illness.

What I am aiming for with this particular spate of reading is to find forms I like, to find ways of approaching the subject matter, to hear what others have to say about it. I am drawn to this like a magnet. I can’t resist a book about grief or death these days. I know, it sounds macabre. But that’s what is in my head, and I know the only way to get it out is to write it out. I don’t aim to copy these titles; I want to get at what makes them tick. This started rather casually, but it has turned into a methodical research project. As it should be. For years I devoured books about books and YA novels. But now my reading is much more focused.

If you aren’t reading for a particular project, you can still have purposeful reading that you do. I have reading lists for many things. Many of my Facebook friends are writers, and many of those writers teach college. Occasionally they will post a request, like Recommendations for books about poetics by a poet? Last year, someone did that and the discussion went on until there were 50 titles listed. I promptly copied it all into a Word document and I now have my reading list for my own Master Class in Poetics. This list should prove to be helpful for another book project. I also have a list of favorite book-length lyric essays and a list of creative nonfiction craft books, gleaned in a similar way.

Why not take a stroll through your favorite bookstore’s writing section? Or sit down with a stack of journals. See what grabs you. Or check the back of some of your favorite writing books for Suggested Reading lists, or, best yet, ask those you trust what they recommend. Next time you read a nonfiction book (or even a novel), check the list of sources, and you’ll see why I’m reading so widely. For books on writing, I recommend Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and for reference, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. What do you recommend? What are your favorite writing books – either on craft, the writing life, or for reference? Because there’s no way around it – a writer’s gotta read.

One thought on “R is for Reading”

  1. Reading is great advice. I’ve always found most of my plotbunnies come from other stories, be they books or movies or music. Plus, great way to keep up to date with trends.

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