Most writers do not discover stories by writing them. They discover stories by absorbing them.
I don’t know which came first: my parents reading old fairytales to me or sitting me in front of their animated Disney adaptions.
But as soon as I could, I started telling my own stories. The older I got, the more I learned, the more I read. The more I read, the more I itched to write my own stories — until I learned to do that, too.
And then I did it. Over, and over, and over again.
I still do. Daily.
For a long time, I wondered why it was easier to discuss books than it was to discuss my own writing. Sharing my own ideas became a source of creative anxiety. Yet sitting down to do a book report in school hardly felt like homework.
I do not like when people ask me what I’m writing. I appreciate it — and I always try to ask other writers I meet what they’re working on.
But there’s a question I like much more than, “What are you writing?”
I would rather ask — and be asked — “What are you reading?”
It’s not that this question is harder to answer than its more common alternative. At least for me, it’s easy to name the book that’s currently sitting on my nightstand.
It’s just more interesting.
Writing, even in its later stages, is still an unfinished product of a writer’s ever-scattered mind. Even a simple elevator pitch is intriguing … but a conversation stopper.
I find that when I ask people what they’re reading, conversations erupt in joy and excitement. Because talking about books — finished, published, circulated — is where all writing starts. When I ask people what they’re writing, they tend to give generic, incomplete responses … because many times, their writing isn’t complete yet. Some people don’t want to talk about it (yet).
Asking a writer what’s on their nightstand gives them an opportunity to talk about someone else’s words and life and ideas. While it’s true most people love talking about themselves, talking about what you’re writing can feel like you’re sharing a secret you’re not ready to tell.
Yet talking about other writers brings out their raw obsession with an idea — which is much more interesting than pressuring them to get into the logistics of their latest project.
Ask a writer what they’re working on, and their words will spill out accompanied by nerves. Ask them what they’re reading about, and their eyes will light up. It’s amazing to watch.
Some writers still aren’t used to discussing their own work. But chances are, they’ve been discussing the work of other writers for decades.
There’s something magical about a writer who reads.
A writer who reads has a stronger voice.
Their mind is open to more ideas; possibilities; beliefs and worldviews.
A writer who reads is less afraid to explore uncharted territory. They understand that not all conversations are easy, and that stories are tools we can all use to persuade, to shame, to praise, to spread acceptance, to highlight facts, to break down barriers.
Today, don’t ask a writer what they’re writing about. Ask them what they are reading. Ask them their favorite books, their favorite authors. Start with who and what influences and interests them the most. That is where passion for words and ideas begins. Sometimes, putting into words what you haven’t finished writing yet is impossible. But where your ideas come from, where your latest project had its first spark — a writer can discuss that for hours on end.
Most of us, before we can write well, read. That is how we fall in love with stories. And it’s what inspires us to start telling, and then writing, our own.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.
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