When I was in graduate school and working full time, I walked home from the bus stop every night dead tired. Full day of work behind me, evening of work ahead. I'd push open the door, and bend down to pet my dog, her front paws on my knees. A darn good welcome, but every once in a while it got better. A package waited on the stairs, a priority mail envelope, and I knew there was a book inside.
Good books seemed to flow like water or wine while I was in grad school. Through word of mouth. Reading lists from inspired professors.
But a long lost friend and love might as well have been sitting on that stoop---that's how much those books meant to me. They offered a reprieve from all the deadlines and the hours of work and the guilt that my dog's walks were never long enough. They offered up a reminder of why I worked so hard.
Because you know that feeling you get when you're captivated by a book? Can't put it down. Think about it long after you do. The feel of the book stays with you.
In grad school, I figured out how to take that feeling---that transformative power of a book---and start reading like a writer.
When I got to the end of a book, I didn't put it down. I flipped back through its pages and looked at the chapters and the paragraph breaks and the sentences. I asked myself:
How did the writer do that?
Why end the chapter there?
Why weave back and forth between characters?
Why use those words to paint those images?
After a while, answers came to me. I saw that using just the right visual detail could convey an emotion without ever using a word like sad or happy or mad. I saw that sometimes, a power comes with saying less rather than more.
Learning through reading changed everything. I stopped looking for others to tell me how to write (though thoughtful feedback is always, always, always part of writing), and I started figuring out how the how for myself.
Becoming a better writer isn't always about the next class or the next workshop or memorizing the next writing rule. Sometimes it's about being inspired, and spending time with that which inspires us. It's about truly engaging in the act of study.
(Incidentally, it's also how I finally decided that it's okay to not finish a book. There are so many good ones to read... why spend so much time finishing one that doesn't resonate?)
Those books on my stoop were more than a reprieve. They were a window into the kind of writer I wanted to be.