Time magazine has a celebrity interview feature called "10 Questions." A month or so ago, Time readers posed the questions to James Ellroy, author of great noirish fiction – a number of his books hit the best seller lists and became movies, like L.A. confidential and The Black Dahlia.
One question in particular caught my attention (please see following excerpt):
Q: Are people born good writers?
James Ellroy: No. You have to read, read, read, read, read, read read, read and read. And as you read for enjoyment and edification, unconsciously you assimilate the rudiments of style and technique, and when it comes time for a person to begin to seriously write they either have it or they don't. The level of artistry can be enhanced, chiefly through hard work – but you read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read. It's an informal education that is oddly formal by dint of the very fact of reading.
I had remembered reading the passage but could not track it down. Time makes it almost impossible to get content through their Web archive, even if you are a subscriber to the print magazine and have their smartphone app (I am and I do). I did find this YouTube clip which, features the Q and A session with Ellroy. He is a pretty intense dude, check it out, you will see what I mean.
Ellroy offers sound advice. Folks who work in PR agencies are constantly looking to up the writing games of their teams – this is one way to get them to try to do it.
It also reminded me of my long career, and how I almost flunked my first writing course in my freshman year of college. I was a constant irritant to the professor, and just could not seem to get my arms around the writing assignments. Then, I transferred from Brandeis University and entered the college of engineering at BU. Engineers are not known to be great writers. I'll spare you all the gory details, but twenty plus years later I work in PR, enjoy writing, and many people say I am good at it. I would have to say that reading has contributed to helping me improve as a writer – and that connection only really hit home after reading Ellroy's interview.
It really is like a collective subconscious (or Greek chorus), consisting of all of the voices of the writers you have read – sitting in the back of the mind and guiding your work.