Ten years ago the realization that my education as a writer had always been within my reach, waiting for me to merely pick it up and put it to use, finally revealed itself. I was reminded of this recently while reading David Petersen’s, Writing Naturally: A Down-to-earth Guide for Nature Writing, in which he writes:
"Yes, a formal writing education can help you to write better.
Yes, writing workshops can help you to write better.
Yes, how-to books and magazines and even correspondence courses can help you to write better.
Yet the best any and all such external aids can do is to help you help yourself. What makes good writers isn't nearly so much teaching as it is learning...learning via reading, studying and dissecting the work of other writers, good and bad; learning by writing and revising and getting rejected and revising some more and weighing informed criticism and eventually getting published and never-ever fooling yourself into believing you know it all. These things, such self-directed educational struggles, adapted as a lifestyle, make good writers."
During the final two years of my formal education at Vermont College, students were required to read and annotate twenty books in their area of study per semester, approximately one book per week. As I worked my way through book after book, I began to see that, although my classes and instructors provided me specific instruction, mentoring and structure, the books provided the education.
The books documented life---its mysteries, its dreams, its facts, its ideas---and each one was not a product authored by a faceless abstract being, but the manifestation of an individual’s heart and mind. I learned to read as a writer, to focus on how the authors told their stories; their techniques, their tone, their structure.
Yes, attend writing workshops, conferences, and classes to connect with other writers and to gain new ideas and guidance. But you must also read, read, read. Read every book on writing instruction you can get your hands on. If you want to write mysteries, read mysteries. If you want to write poetry, read poetry. If you want to write, read.
My grandmother once sent me a homemade bookmark on which she scribbled the words of Mark Twain, “Those who do not read have no advantage over those who can’t.”
Books hold the world between their covers, and it is there simply for the taking.