Recently I met with a young author who wanted advice about publishing. I showed up to our lunch together prepped with tips for using beta readers for early feedback and identifying possible agents when the manuscript was ready. But before we got to that point in the conversation, I had one important question for him: how much do you read?
“Oh I read all the time,” he said, naming a few authors in his genre that he especially admired. Then, as if he knew why I was asking, he said, “Reading is my best writing class. When I read an amazing book, then I start copying the author’s style in my own writing for a while. But then I’ll read another book and start copying that style. And eventually I make it my own.”
I was heartened by his response. He understands, as Annie Dillard writes, “that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels,” and he doesn’t just “like only the role” of being a writer, “the thought of himself in a hat.” He also sees that his own work can be both influenced and improved through reading and studying the great works of others.
That’s why, when I wrote The Art of the Essay, I included the titles of dozens of essays as further reading. Like with my young writer friend, I wanted readers of the book to see that essayists like essays. I also included them because part of mastering the form is observing how other writers bring their words to life.
For instance, last summer, a beautiful essay from The Paris Review was making all the rounds on social media and being talked about in the writer groups I frequent: The Crane Wife, by CJ Hauser. On first seeing the link shared in a Facebook group, I’ll admit that I didn’t click through. From the title, I wasn’t sure what it was about, and I didn’t recognize the author. But when I saw others talking about its thoughtfulness, its imagery, its very resonant message about discovering what we need in relationships, I decided to read it myself. And as others had gushed, the essay was brilliant.
But why? What structure and strategies did the author use to create such effect? And what could I, as an essayist, learn from her?