Food For Thought, Fuel for the Imagination

Scott William Carter   May 14, 2006  

I was having an online discussion with an aspiring fiction writer the other day that made me realize why writing has been a little harder for me lately. Quite simply, I’ve been running out of fuel.

Books, stories, poetry — the creative “fuel” for any writing can come from a number of different places, including experiences gained from our own lives. But a writer’s most consistent source of sustenance for his imagination has to be other writers. “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” That’s what Stephen King, whom I believe to be the Charles Dickens of our time, wrote in his great book on writing, aptly named just that, On Writing. And nothing could be more true. If your own experiences are the spark, the flame, that gives your stories heart, then reading is the wood that feeds the flames.

In the course of this conversation with this aspiring writer, I asked him what kind of books he was reading. He sheepishly admitted that he didn’t have much time to read, so he didn’t do a whole lot of it. (He, of course, didn’t do much writing either, which frankly wasn’t a surprise, because most aspiring writers don’t — which is why they’re “aspiring.” When they start writing a lot, they cease to be aspiring writers in my mind and become up-and-coming writers.) But without reading, there’s no hope for any writer, because it’s by reading that he or she keeps the fires burning. All those words and ideas of other writers get ground up in the writer’s mind, becoming grist for the mill, or quite literally food for thought.

I’ve been having a hard time finding my groove with my writing lately, and I think my problem is the same as with this aspiring writer. Not enough reading. For a while, I wasn’t doing a whole lot of writing either (partly due to the birth of my son, and partly due to other matters), but now that I have been writing, it’s seemed a little . . . stale. Forced sometimes. I couldn’t put my finger on why until I realized that I hadn’t been feeding my imagination well enough.

As time became more scarce (and I thought I was busy with one child), I sometimes felt I had to choose between reading and writing, as if there wasn’t enough time to do both. It’s not like I stopped reading completely (I love it too much for that), but I haven’t been reading with the same quantity or diversity. That’s got to the change — both have to be made priorities. Because King’s right: if I don’t make the time to read, I won’t have what it takes to write. And if I don’t read widely and voraciously, I certainly can’t get better — because it’s by comparing myself to other writers that I push myself to get better as a writer myself.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s this book I’ve been meaning to read, and I better get to it.

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