Much of what a writer must do is consume as much as possible in all possible areas of life. I've mentioned this before, probably more than once. What a writer should consume depends on the type of writer they want to be, but in general I'd say the list includes beautiful natural scenes, people from all backgrounds and regions, good theater of all forms, as much art as possible, and, most importantly, a variety of literature. Staying updated on current events to some extent is important, too, if you want to have relevance for today's world (that "if" is crucial, though, because some writers might want to be timeless and thus don't care for today's world. Those writers, though, must have a confidence that transcends confidence to keep writing without any feedback of any kind. I want to be timeless, but I want to be famous here and now, for goodness sakes!).
A writer learns how to write well from consuming all of the above, and perhaps I will write a post on each item in the future. But mostly a writer learns how to write well from writing, obviously, and to a lesser extent reading. All the other stuff is without question valuable but cannot endow the writer with lasting tools for the task. Writing and reading are at the heart of a writer's life.
Technically I've only been attempting this writer thing since my graduation from seminary in May, and then I took a few weeks to myself, so I've only been a writer for a couple of months. Early on I grew frustrated with how much I was reading rather than writing. It took wise advice from my artist friend, Alexandra, to remind me that it is through reading that I consume what I most need to be a writer. Hence why I have now penciled in at least a couple of hours of reading into my daily schedule to bolster the writing that I do. And now I am very careful about what I read.
Since I know that everyone in the world is interested in what I read, or at least is interested to know the reading habits of a writer--clearly my reading habits are the same as all other writers, more or less, clearly-- and mostly because I just want to show off, let me talk about what I read. Warning: extremely significant information follows.
As a rule I have very diverse interests. Now that I have more clearly defined my mission as a writer, which I think I have made clear on the history page of this blog and in various posts like the last one, I can indulge those interests at a more profitable rate. Mostly I read philosophy because most of what I write is non-fiction, usually in the form of short essays like Emerson's or Chesterton's but I am not opposed to longer works--I am writing a book on my bike trip from last year and modern-day slavery, after all, which is up to 30,000 words and I am not yet halfway through, and when I'm done with that I will extend and edit my master's thesis which is already 40,000+ words. Soren Kierkegaard, that troublesome Christian philosopher/theologian, by far takes the prize in terms of who I read; Nietzsche is also a favorite. It would be hard to claim to read philosophy without also reading the likes of Foucault, Derrida, and Sartre; and the classics Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, Locke, Hobbes, and Hume. Some of these names are only on my "to read" list right now, but I have a good familiarity with mostly everyone. I guess I can include Thoreau and Emerson in this list as well--I am a good Boston suburb guy, after all (Hawthorne is one of my favorite authors, too). For the same reason theology is high up on my list as well. Anything that strings together knowledge of the world with logic, good writing, and arguments, catches my eye. I had to read a lot of Moltmann in seminary, not by choice; I choose to read C.S. Lewis, Barth, John Wesley, Hauerwas, Tolstoy, and Eastern Orthodox writers.
History could possibly fit into my reasoning for liking philosophy and theology. I read a crap ton of history. Right now I'm reading States' Rights and the Union. I recently finished a killer book on the history of Europe, and I have an equally long biography of Stonewall Jackson which I often attend to. Biographies don't fill my shelves but there are some figures, like Jackson, Wilberforce, Dorothy Day and Oscar Wilde that are far too intriguing and inspiring to not read about their lives. Jeff Shaara's historical fiction books are a favorite, as well as other American history books. I like to be well-versed in the background history of major civilizations like the Tainos, China, India, Egypt, and the various cultures that have surrounded Baghdad, Greece and Rome. We can't get around the fact that we are formed, at least partly, by the experiences we have and the people we interact with; likewise we are formed by the people and experiences who have gone before us. Plus, the people and events of history can provide a writer with new thoughts, possibilities, and arenas for creativity that are not immediately available in the world around us.
Other than the main three of philosophy, theology, and history, my tastes vary too widely to really talk much about. The classical literature of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Melville, Chaucer, Goethe, Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Hawthorne are unavoidable. I read "the classics" mostly because I want to be able to converse with other people about literature, which is more likely to occur if I read the most well-known novels throughout history. Other classics pop up every now and then. There are too many books in the English canon to really properly attend to all of them. Honestly I don't often read novels that aren't written by major names of literary history, but I do often enough so as not to be a boring canon guy. Perhaps reading plays, which I do occasionally, can be included as reading outside of the canon.
Hawthorne represents the best of literature as far as I'm concerned. While he writes what on the surface appear to be comments on society and very proper stories, "time-pieces" as we call them, his writing is far more than that. In all Hawthorne stories there is a mysterious element of the supernatural that dominates the story, even if it is hidden, which I absolutely love, particularly because he weaves it into the story so seamlessly. I do much like more blatant fantasy and science-fiction, too. Isaac Asimov is a giant of literature despite not being read nearly as much as he deserves. I've read way too much of Orson Scott Card (I don't like him at all), and am now reading Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga, which is disappointing.
Comedy plays a major role in my reading. I have to read a book that is at least mildly funny on a regular schedule or I'll go crazy--literally, I'm not exaggerating. Comic fantasy is a large chunk of that. Terry Pratchett is the master of comic fantasy and I highly recommend him to anyone and everyone. More intellectual comedy also plays a major role, particularly that of David Lodge, Evelyn Waugh, and Vonnegut. Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Heller's Catch-22 are probably my two favorite novels, followed closely by Waugh's Vile Bodies and a whole bunch of other Vonnegut stories.
Other non-fiction writing that I read, not already covered, usually relates to church matters, like preaching and pastoral care, and Christianity and religion. If I'm going to write about how churches should operate, which I plan to do--I'm an anarchist politically, but religiously my anarchy and individualism takes on strange forms--then I have to be well-versed in the literature. I also plan to write sermons--and pray God I hope to give sermons as well--so sermons also find their way into my reading. But things like God and the New Physics probably best represent what I prefer to read. I may have been an English major, but that physics professor I had in college who suggested I not take Physics 111 because I'd fail out underestimated my mathematical skills, my pure genius, and my interest in science--I'd eventually get a B+ in the class, missing an A- by 0.1, which was better than 90% of the class, all of whom were math, physics, or bio-chemistry majors.
Lastly, but not least in any way, I read poetry. I put this last because, unfortunately, I do read poetry the least. Now that I'm writing I'm telling myself to include reading poetry as part of my daily schedule rather than just hoping that during my reading hours I decide to poetry. I'm not much of a short story guy, but what short stories I do read--Kafka and Dylan Thomas, mostly--I include as poetry because it is quick to read and long to digest. Dylan Thomas is by far my favorite poet. Between Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a guy named John Engels, my own poetry seems to find a happy medium. I can't say I imitate or "take after" any one of them, though I wish I could say that, but I certainly am most influenced by them. Wordsworth, Frost (ugh), Byron, Shelley (heck yeah!), Mary Oliver and Donald Justice, T.S. Eliot (another ugh), William Cowper, Billy Blake, and John Donne are all also read often.
Poetry is key to a writer, or anyone who hopes to be creative. You know a good movie when certain scenes and pictures stay with you and you think about them afterward. With poetry, unless you aren't really reading it, the poem always paints a picture--hopefully not only an idea--that will stay with you. Some people, of which I am not one, can remember and quote poetry like it's their job. My friend Rob is certainly one of those people and I am incredibly envious. But even when I can't quote poetry, don't even know from what poem the thing I'm thinking of comes, I know that much of what I think and say is influenced by the poetry that I have read. Some of the most beautiful scenes and thoughts that any of us think of are influenced by poetry. It's strange to say, but I truly believe that to be the case. And so, clearly it's important for me as a writer to read poetry... but clearly it's also important for all people to read poetry, unless you're okay being a monotonous drone. I suppose that's cool, too.