In his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), James Boswell noted, with little exaggeration, that a writer “will turn over half a library in order to make one book.” To put this nugget of wisdom another way, the act of writing is the act of entering the formal (in the sense of leaving a permanent record), never-ending conversation of humankind. As is true of informal, oral conversation, the more familiar you are with what has already been discussed, the likelier your own contributions will be substantive and valued, and stimulate further conversation.
Writers, then, must be readers. They must be constant readers, passionate not only about the subjects they’re interested in (which should be many), but about the act of reading itself. Reading enlarges the mind and the possibilities of language and thought. Reading takes us beyond our limited range of physical experience—enables us to journey through space and time to discover the best of what has been achieved in the arts and sciences, in history, law, politics, and commerce.
How does one even begin to choose from the millions of books that have been published since Homer first picked up a stylus or dictated to a scribe nearly three thousand years ago? You might begin by asking yourself which subjects fascinate you the most, or make your imagination soar, or help you to better cope with a complex world. These will be the subjects that will help you grow as a writer.
As a writer, you must also be an absolute sponge—a glutton—for a great many subjects, not just the ones that fascinate you the most. All knowledge is interconnected. If want to write psychological thrillers, you want to read deeply in psychology, medicine and health, anthropology, all sorts of literature (after all, literature is about the human condition, and psychology is central to human behavior), and of course, mystery and thriller fiction, if only to learn how the pros do it.
The books and occasional shorter works from which I’ve selected passages for your writerly reflection inevitably represent a personal choice; but I hasten to add that I am an educator, so I took pains to select works that are considered classics in their respective genres and/or disciplines. The selections are short enough to serve as a teaser—to get you to read the work in its entirety—and are just long enough for you to learn something from, whether it be a single concept from a philosophical work or a suspenseful moment from one of many suspenseful moments in a mystery or science fiction novel. Most importantly: I’ve selected passages that should make any writer—veteran or newbie—want to start writing. And just in case the selections themselves don’t get the words gushing from your pen, I’ve added a reflection on the passage together with a writing prompt after each selection.
There are at least two ways to use this book: One, use it to sustain a daily writing regimen. The most important step you can take toward becoming a successful author is to cultivate the habit of writing every day. Spend three weeks with The Daily Reader, writing in response to three weeks’ worth of prompts, and you will very likely have that precious writing habit established once and for all.
Two, flip through the book and more-or-less randomly select an entry that piques your curiosity. Read it, reflect on it, and use it as a springboard for one or two hours’ worth of intensive writing. Before too long, something will start to congeal: a premise for a novel or a play, a theme for a sequence of poems. I suggest you write your exercises on loose-leaf paper and keep them organized with index tabs in a binder. Arrange and rearrange the writings as you see fit. And, just as importantly, revise them on a regular basis. Remember: Reading begets writing and writing begets even more writing, and more reading.
Male and Female: A Study of Sexes in a Changing World
by Margaret Mead
In discussing men and women, I shall be concerned with the primary differences between them, the difference in their reproductive roles. Out of the bodies fashioned for complementary roles in perpetuating the race, what differences in functioning, in capacities, in sensitivities, in vulnerabilities arise? How is it what men can do related to the fact that their reproductive role is over in a single act, what women can do related to the fact that their reproductive role takes nine months of gestation, and until recently many months of breast feeding? What is the contribution of each sex, seen as itself, not as a mere imperfect version of the other?
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION
What can we learn about humanity through the lens of anthropology? Through her astute observation of other cultures, Margaret Mead, one of the twentieth century’s greatest anthropologists, gives us a better sense of the connection between biology and destiny. In our modern technological society, for example, Mead writes, “it is easy to lose sight of the immediacy of the human body plan.” In so-called primitive societies, where men, women, and children wear very little clothing, primary bodily experiences are not displaced the way they are in modern societies.
Write an essay in which you speculate on the attitudes in modern urban society toward nakedness—for example, that it is shameful or prurient. Why do you suppose these attitudes are nonexistent in non-technological societies? Why do you suppose some modern people reject this attitude and join nudist colonies? After completing a draft of your essay, read more of Margaret Mead’s work and then revise your essay accordingly.
“Of Water, as Painted by Turner”
by John Ruskin
from Modern Painters
The noblest sea that Turner has ever painted … is that of the Slave Ship, the chief Academy picture of the Exhibition of 1840. It is a sunset on the Atlantic after prolonged storm, but the storm is partially lulled, and the torn and streaming rain-clouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night. The whole surface of sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high, nor local, but a low, broad heaving of the whole ocean, like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm. Between these two ridges, the fire of the sunset falls along the trough of the sea, dyeing it with an awful but glorious light, the intense and lurid splendor which burns like gold and bathes like blood. Along this fiery path and valley, the tossing waves by which the swell of the sea is restlessly divided, lift themselves in dark, indefinite, fantastic forms, each casting a faint and ghastly shadow behind it along the illumined foam. They do not rise everywhere, but three or four together in wild groups, fitfully and furiously, as the under strength of the swell compels … them, leaving between them treacherous spaces of level and whirling water, now lighted with green and lamp-like fire, now flashing back the gold of the declining sun. … Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of the night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty [slave] ship as it labours amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight. …
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION
John Ruskin, the great Victorian critic of art and architecture, as well as social reformer, championed the paintings of J.M.W. Turner in his first book, Modern Painters, for their moral aesthetic power. Unsurpassed in his ability to translate attributes of a work of art into majestic prose, Ruskin became one of England’s most influential voices in shaping aesthetic taste.
Describe one of your favorite paintings, sculptures, or architectural structures, using minute, sensory details. Call attention to the moral as well as the aesthetic vision conveyed by the work as you perceive it.
Find out more about The Daily Reader.
Find out more about The Daily Writer.