Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reading to Write

by Samantha Wilde

My writing education began at birth being born, as I was, about the same time my mother published her first novel, which took its place high on the top of one of our multiple bookshelves to be followed, over the years, by twenty other novels (to date) as well as countless versions of each novel in a variety of languages. (That's my mother, Nancy Thayer's, latest novel, HEAT WAVE.)

I grew up assuming writing was a normal occupation and reading came second only to chocolate eating as the most desirable, pleasurable and satisfying activity any adult can enjoy (yes, far ahead of sex). The best way, as I understood it, to become a writer, was reading. In fact, to this day, I marvel at people who long to be writers and fail to be readers. Reading ensured the learning of rhythm and cadence, structure and melody, in the written word. It inspired plot, illustrated the importance of character, and solidified the worth of the occupation of writing itself. As readers, we always knew why writers and books mattered.

Formally, I took every creative writing class offered from the time I could put pen to paper. In my first year of high school at the performing arts school, Walnut Hill, located just outside of Boston, I did an independent study in creative writing with my English teacher. I can still recall the effort of typing out the stories, editing under her careful scrutiny, producing. This went on throughout high school, though I transferred to a different boarding school. In college, first at Wellesley, where fancying myself a poet, I studied under a number of visiting poets, then at Smith, where I took a short story class with Elinor Lipman, mistress of wit.

I was also--though I doubt it needs mentioning--an English major. (What else could I have been?) My academic writing did no less to form my style than my creative writing. In fact, I loved to fuse the two, to imbue my papers on Milton with a creative edge. By the time I arrived at Yale Divinity School, I felt passionately about writing a creative, persuasive paper, though now it would be called exegesis. In a strange way, it hardly mattered what I was writing, a love letter, a short story, a sermon, a New Testament exam essay. It was the writing that mattered, and every writing was the chance to practice, to play with words, to dive into the world I grew up knowing best--all those sweet smelling books with their buttery pages and intoxicating covers. (And so this is why I will never go the way of the e-book. I love to stare at a book's cover when it is sitting waiting on the table, or on the nightstand, or lying askew on the bed. Or sometimes after reading a few pages I will turn and idly gaze.)

I have wished more than once for a more formal education as a writer, thought it would be more legitimate to hang out with a gaggle of writers, all black-clothed and edgy, but this hasn't been my way--yet, anyway. It is simply true for me that I learn something every time I pick up a book, and I have collected all these teachers over the years just as my mother has. When I sit in our family room/study, the towering shelves beside me are filled with my teachers (and, of course, even the most poorly written novel has something to teach), and in that I feel very lucky.

So what do you love as much as chocolate?


  1. Great post, Samantha!

    Reading is a wonderful way to learn how to write and I loved your observation: "even the most poorly written novel has something to teach." So true!

    What do I love as much as chocolate? Chocolate with raspberries... :)

  2. Wow you have a great lineage!

    I'm with you: I don't get people who want to write, but don't read.

  3. Thanks, girlfriends.
    And I have to agree with you, Sara, about the chocolate and raspberries!