A Facebook group I'm part recently had a question about what "great" books aspiring writers should read. Basically, how do you implement that advice that good writers need to be good readers? A lot of people rightly said that you should read what you like, which is true but not necessarily what the person was looking for. I offered up a list of my favorite novels and why I liked them, undoubtedly forgetting some, and I also suggested some nonfiction about writing that I find helpful.
I never studied creative writing, but I went to a college with a big arts program and was exposed to a lot of ideas about consuming the "best" art. In the last few years I've noticed how much that "great art," in many mediums, was almost always made by cis men, usually by straight white men, usually centering their own damn experiences. I've been reading Rebecca Solnit's The Mother of All Questions and thinking a lot about what art, especially fiction in all its forms, teaches us about our world. By our stories we survive, right? So what are those stories?
My sister is a visual artist. She went to art school. Recently she read a book called How to Suppress Women's Writing and it's changing her art. Today I took the baby to the art studio she's renting for the summer and looked at her work, so different from what she's been doing for the last ten years. "I'm breaking the rules they taught me in college," she told me. She's making these huge pieces, paintings on top of paper weavings, gardens of paper flowers, an alphabet of animals floating in blank space. It's unlike other things and it seems to be pouring out of her, now that she is breaking the rules.
I'm borrowing that book. It's giving her permission, it seems, to unlearn rules. I needed permission, permission that I gave myself, to stop reading books because they were highly recommended or well reviewed and to instead read what I like. To ignore men's novels almost entirely. To center stories as much like my own as I can find.
I think a lot of people wanting to write are, quite sensibly, looking for rules and guides and classic work to read. That's great. We all need to learn the rules of the medium we're using. But we also need to unlearn them. We need to throw out "classics" that erase or diminish us, to shrug off guides that don't serve us, to question to rules. We need to do all this at the same time we live our lives and support other people's work and create. It's an incredible prospect to make art. It's a joy to be a part of this.
A queer femme, writing romance and smut.