There is a virtue in artists that, if taken to an extreme, can turn into a vice.
That virtue is the good discipline of learning from the work of others. The aspiring painter visits the gallery and notes the techniques and craft of the great masters. The actor watches the work of others on film, television, or the stage and decides what she can learn from what she has seen.
Writers are no different. Nearly every writer I have ever spoken to about advice on the craft has advised me to read. To read in my genre, and more importantly to read out of it.
I took this good advice to heart. I read books across the genres, and learnt all sort of things from them, and as soon as I finished one book I looked around for the next.
What I didn’t realise, until recently, was that I was losing more than I was gaining. Eventually I noticed that my enjoyment of reading had diminished. It hadn’t been a quick process but it had been a steady and relentless one.
It was only when I noticed what was happening that I remembered what it was like to get lost in a book. I remembered when I was young, and I used to get lost in a book. Do you remember getting lost on a book? Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it joyous?
What I realised was that for me, the virtue of learning from the work of others had turned into a joyless, forced march through so many pages of material. I found myself longing to get to the end of a book just so that I could start the next one.
Worse still, I found that instead of reading and engaging with the story I was comparing the author’s work with my own, often not favourably. I began to realise that every other writer had become not a storyteller and guide, but a competitor.
To lose a sense of joy in any area of life is worrying, and probably unchristian. I will spare you a selection of verses from scripture on the importance of joy – you can look them up yourself. Suffice it to say that the absence of joy is simply not compatible with the normal Christian life. I decided that I was not going to live like that, I’m sure you wouldn’t want to either.
So, I am now re-learning the art of reading well. Fortunately, the summer holidays beckon and I have some holiday coming up. I am going to get a couple of splendid books and read them. I am going to savour them, I am going to switch off the electronic devices and drink deeply from some wonderful stories. I am going to let the author guide me. I am going to forget about learning lessons and I am simply going to read – and it will be a joy.
Andrew J Chamberlain is a writer, speaker, and creative writing tutor. He is the presenter of The Creative Writer's Toolbelt a podcast that offers practical, accessible advice on the craft. Andrew has worked on a number of ghost-writing collaborations for Authentic Media, including the bestselling 'Once an Addict' with Barry Woodward. He has also self-published a number of science fiction short stories. Andrew will be speaking at the First Page Writing Course this November.