I often run across articles and interviews in which published writers are asked the one piece of advice they would give to young and aspiring writers. The most common advice seems to be to read voraciously. By reading the work of other writers, you absorb techniques, strategies, rhythms, vocabulary…You think you’re just enjoying yourself when in fact you’re getting an education. I suppose “read voraciously” is as good a tidbit of advice as any. It might be wasted advice, though, for the simple fact that writers tend to be voracious readers already.
But while bookishness is a necessary condition for writerliness, it’s not a sufficient condition. That is to say, while you can’t be much of a writer without being a reader, you also won’t have much to write about if you don’t get up from your desk and pursue a life outside of books.
It is your job as a writer to give the reader something she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get for herself. If you are just recycling the things you’ve read in other books, no matter how skillfully, you probably aren’t giving your reader something she couldn’t get for herself.
Your unique voice, your originality derives from the life you’ve lived. Your best material won’t come from books. It will come from your observation of the world where you actually live. (Though, it must be said, your observations will be colored by your reading.)
I’ve been thinking about these things as I’ve been preparing to teach Writing with Hobbits. The Hobbit starts with that great description of Bilbo Baggins’s domestic arrangements:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—the hobbit was fond of visitors.
Surely I am not the first person to think that Bilbo’s hole sounds like an ideal setup for a writer: it’s comfortable and quiet, with plenty of tea and frequent snacks. Bilbo apparently has no pressing responsibilities; he has ample time to blow smoke rings and watch the world go by.
As a Baggins, Bilbo is a poster-boy for hobbitty values. He’s steady, comfortable, predictable (qualities that are all exceedingly helpful for a productive writer)…
The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him.
But Bilbo isn’t only a Baggins. On his mother’s side he is a Took. The Tooks aren’t quite so respectable as the Bagginses. There was “something not entirely hobbitlike about them, and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up.”
It was that Tookishness that caused Bilbo to go along on the dwarves’ adventure. And after the adventure, Bilbo came back to his hobbit hole, with its quiet, comfortable leisure, and he became a writer. When Gandalf and Balin come back to Hobbiton years later, they find Bilbo in his study writing his memoirs.
Before his adventure, when the Baggins sensibility prevailed, Bilbo had nothing nothing to say. “you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him.” But after his Tookishness asserted itself, he finally had something to give the reader that the reader couldn’t get for herself.
So I think I’m going to change my one piece of advice for young and aspiring writers. I suspect you’re already a voracious reader. You probably don’t need to be more bookish. You probably need to be more Tookish.