Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Reading Road to Writing

The man who I stole this title from knows who he is.  He was my mentor for many years and I owe him an immense debt of gratitude for many things including honing my writing ability a great deal more than it was.

This post is about, well, the reading road to writing.

Shadows of the Empire

I remember the written word since before I could read.  My mother is a writer, my father, an English teacher.  There was many a night in the Cunningham household that we would gather 'round my dad in our one-piece pajamas and listen to Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder or something of the sort.

I remember my first chapter book, Reddy Fox by Thorton Burgess, and the world he created in my mind: that animals were rational and talked to each other like humans do.

I became a Star Wars fanatic in my grade school years and digested volume after volume of the "before, after, and in between the movies" novels, along with Redwall books, which were equally captivating.  My favorite of them all was Shadows of the Empire set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, featuring an awesome character, Dash Rendar - not overshadowed by the coolness of Han Solo only because the latter was at the time frozen in carbonite.  I immortalized Rendar in my drawings for probably a year straight almost every day after the book was sadly over.

I read a lot when I was a kid.  But it wasn't until college that I noticed how important it was for my writing.

The Volumes of Master Cunningham

I didn't write very well as a grade-schooler.  I mean, it wasn't bad, but it wasn't awesome either (like this post, which is pretty much just trying to get a point across).  I wrote as if I was getting paid by the word (like Dickens), and my teachers would have to continuously remind me to finish my story so I could finish my first draft before the rest of the class finished their third.

During my third grade year, I wanted a stuffed animal Simba (the main character from The Lion King) for Christmas so badly that I wrote a sappy piece of shit story about a boy (me) who "found the true meaning of Christmas" and then got the stuffed animal under the tree Christmas morning.  My mom cried when she read it.  Guess what I got for Christmas?  L.M.F.A.O. (and I don't mean the music group)!

During my senior year of high school, my English teacher showed me I could write if I wanted to.  I wrote a few fantastic stories and poems during that class, and since that moment, I've become an addict.  And it's been a wonderful, painful addiction.

In college, I made friends with another writer and literary freak of nature who remains one of my best friends to this day, and who I dedicated the above to.  It was he who showed me "the reading road to writing."

The Road

It's simple.  We imitate what we take in.  (That was the golden line, all the rest is fluff here.)  I previously wrote about listening to "Old-Time Radio" shows that gave me the cadence to write somewhat profoundly like the 1940's "Theater of the Mind" writers did.  The "reading road" was like it.

My friend compiled samples of writing from various literary works (he had literally read everything) and organized them into the different elements of story.  I also attended his writing club where he preached his theory and we practiced it.

Each week we would read an author and imitate his style.  I particularly remember the James Joyce assignment very well: the exercise of stream of consciousness writing was perhaps our favorite of the semester.

The idea was to take in as many great writers' works as we could, identify and assimilate their writing style, and add it to our own where we saw fit.  No two writers can or do write exactly the same of course, but all of us "stand on the shoulders of great men."  No one has written in a vacuum.  Our group was just trying to enhance the process.

My friend complimented me privately on how I could naturally absorb the styles of the authors and employ them in my stories.

"It's a talent and a passion," he said, "But you have to form it."  I will continue to do so until the day I die.

My Masters 

In grade school it was George Lucas and his minions; in high school it was Shakespeare; in college it was Dickens, Flannery O'Connor, Rowling, McCullough, and Twain.  Right now (and I mean 5 minutes ago and 5 minutes from now) it's whoever the hell writes 24.

The point is: if you want to write, read.  Take in the language from the best.  As I was doing research for my first novel, the same friend told me:

"Don't write one book until you've read at least 100."

I took his advice, "and that has made all the difference."


  1. That friend of yours sounds pretty cool... ;)

  2. :) LTMN [laughing through my nose]

  3. To pull from a previous comment you had written on one of my posts, suggesting I should read Joyce--I wish I could emulate his voice and style regularly. There is uncertainty as to why this is true, catching myself in this act on several occasions, but my adoration towards Joyce (and others) is more with with his poetry. I attempt to write poetry, but am not strong at it.

    Where a close writer friend of mine, who boasts his strength is in poetry over prose, who has been my confidant since 2004. My father, similar to yours, has a strong adoration for literature, specifically poetry, and still pushed me into reading more prose; in a few posts of mine, it is mentioned that my father had strong influence on my reading and writing, encouraging me read the classics while my friends opted for YA Lit, or whatever the librarian chose for them.

    I would love to shake the hand of another person, who orated a book talk about Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None instead of one of those Christopher Pike books.

  4. Chris, first of all, thanks for commenting.

    Second, I love writing poetry. However, maybe 1 in 10 ends up actually good. Oftentimes I will rewrite the same poem twenty times until I get something.

    I suggest the same for poetry as with prose: the reading (poetry) road to writing (poetry). My above-mentioned senior English teacher introduced me to the great American and British poets, whose words could ring with a power and music no one could touch.

    I suggest browsing through a volume, but then again, it is entirely up to you.

    We all stand on the shoulders of giants.

    Keep writing, bro. And thanks for reading.

  5. Have you ever read "The Ode Less Traveled" by Stephen Fry? It's basically a textbook on writing poetry, but you'll be laughing out loud at times because Fry is hilarious. It helped my poetry tremendously.

  6. I have not. Adding to the list. Thank you!

  7. Just reserved at my local library; thank you again.

  8. Just read the book. Very comprehensive. Thank you. Funny, I recognized the name and couldn't place it, until I reached the back cover and saw his picture - Mycroft Holmes! A great character actor indeed. Much gained from the book; didn't know the man had an encyclopedic knowledge of poetry. Good stuff. Can't wait to try my hand at it again. Actually, this week my sister is getting married and I will attempt another similar to the one I wrote for both of you. It would be nearly the same but you know what I mean.



  9. @Care: wrote this for my sister. She gets married tomorrow. Thought it would remind you of a few years ago...

    Interested in what you think. I had to write it in haste. No printer at home so I got it done 15 minutes after I finished work last afternoon.

    Here it is: