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by Karen Joy Fowler

Many writers I know fret about how to answer the question, what do you do?  When are you entitled to say that you’re a writer?  When you write?  When you publish?  When you support yourself writing?  For what it’s worth, I believe that a writer is simply someone who writes.   Question posed and answered!  But that’s not actually what I wanted to talk about here.

Early on, I fretted about that question too, but I’ve been answering that I’m a writer for quite some time now.   Only lately I’ve been running a different answer through my head.  Lately, I’ve been thinking that I spend a lot more time reading than writing.  Lately I’ve been thinking my answer should be that I’m a reader.

I’ve always been a reader.  There was a time, early in my career, when reading was quite spoiled for me.  Instead of losing myself in a piece, I’d be frantically trying to dissect it—figure out how it worked and why.  I had to ask myself then—if the price I have to pay to be a writer is my reading, do I still want it?  And answered no; price too high.

Fortunately that phase ended and the joy of reading came back.  In fact, one of the things I love most about being a writer is that it demands reading.  I love becoming temporarily (if thinly) expert in the things each new story requires.  On my bookshelf is an MA thesis about the professional women’s baseball league in the 1940’s.  A whole shelf of books about the Sharon divorce case and the mysterious Gordian knot that was the Bell/Pleasant household in gilded age San Francisco.   Pamphlets concerning a forty-year cult in the Santa Cruz Mountains known as Holy City.    A folder with menus sent to me by the state library in Washington so I could see what inmates in the Steilacoom insane asylum ate in 1873.  Being a writer lets me follow any interest that pops into my head.  It lets me learn.  Currently, I’m all about animal cognition and animal communication.  I’ve been sitting in on a university class on Animal Theory and doing all the fabulous assigned reading for that.  Just ask me about crows sometime.  Don’t expect a short answer!

But in addition to research, I’ve found that I need to free read while I’m writing.   I’ve found that I cannot write without this.

Poetry enlivens my sense of language and image.  In ways I can’t articulate I draw energy from it even though I don’t write it myself.

Nonfiction about anything not related to my current topic always turns out to be strangely pertinent.  I may be writing about the rain forests in Brazil and reading about the sewage system in Paris.  I can guarantee there will be things in that book about sewage that help me think about rain forests.  Ideas will spark from the page to my brain.

Fiction keeps me aware of what a story needs and is.  I remember that my book is for readers in useful ways when I am being a reader myself.

So I used to think of writing as my vocation and reading as my avocation, but now I know they are twisted together and cannot be picked apart.  My writing imagination does not work well unless I am simultaneously allowing myself to read for the sheer fun of it.

I know many writers who feel otherwise.  But for me, if I want to get something new out of my brain, I have to put something new in.

If I want to love the process of writing, I have to be constantly reminding myself of why.  I used to think of myself as a writer who reads.  But I’ve shifted over;  I see now that I’m really a reader who writes.

Editor’s Note: June 19th through the 26th, Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club, will lead a Master Class Retreat focusing on the “problem” sections of work in progress. Spend a week in retreat at Hedgebrook with the benefit of workshops and one-on-one feedback sessions with this master of fiction. Space is limited. Learn more.

Karen Joy Fowler
About Karen Joy Fowler

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