Why I Read and Why I Write

Opinion by Jim Denney

[An apology: I should have posted this piece early this morning instead of late this evening, but I’ve been on the road this past week and just arrived home. Next week, I hope to post on-time. —Jim D.]

I once had a conversation with a fellow writer who told me, “I used to love to read, but I never read anymore. I’m too busy, too many deadlines. Who has time to read anymore?” I hope it didn’t show on my face, but I was very sad to hear that. How can a writer not read?

As a writer, I have to be a reader. Pardon the double-negative, but I can’t not read.

When I read, I find out what I’m really thinking. Sometimes, reading brings me into a collision with ideas I’ve never considered before. And this is equally true whether I’m reading fiction or nonfiction. Maybe the author (or a character the author has created) has an idea or belief or conviction that clashes with my own. Reading forces me to reconsider and refine my own opinions. Books and stories help me test my own ideas and perceptions against those of other people.


George R. R. Martin, author of A Dance with Dragons, at Comic Con 2013 in San Diego, photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

A friend of mine is a voracious reader — but he never reads fiction. He only reads books on history or leadership or business and finance. He can’t understand why anyone bothers to read “made-up stories.” When his wife takes a novel to read at the beach, he kids her, “Enjoy your storybook, honey.”

I pity my poor friend. Trying to explain to him the joys and benefits of a good novel is like trying to explain the color green to someone who’s been sightless since birth. He simply lacks the capacity to appreciate a well-crafted, imaginative tale. In his mind, if the story didn’t happen in real life, why waste time reading it?

As a child, I read to explore the world, and to learn about places and cultures I had never experienced. By identifying with heroes in perilous situations, I vicariously tested my own courage and explored the dark reaches of my own insecurities and terrors. The countless books I lugged home from the library showed me what I could become, if I dared to take the risk.

When I grew older and became a writer, I realized I wrote for the same reason I read: to challenge myself and measure myself against the world. I identify with the words of Joan Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

My favorite books are worlds I love to inhabit. They’re people I enjoy spending time with. They’re mentors who deepen my thinking and my faith. They’re counselors who encourage me to persevere through the stormy seasons of my life.

I wrote my Timebenders science fantasy adventure series for my own children, for thousands of children I’ve never met, and for the child in me. I wrote Battle Before Time and Doorway to Doom to give children the same thrills, terrors, and joys I found in A Wrinkle in Time, The Martian Chronicles, The Hobbit, the Narnia tales, and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

I write to expand a child’s universe, to inspire a child’s sense of wonder, and to deepen a child’s faith. When a child reads a story, he or she becomes the characters in that story. That child learns character traits of courage, determination, perseverance, loyalty, and faith by vicariously experiencing the character’s triumphs — and failures. That child also learns empathy by learning to understand the motivations, longings, fears, and sufferings of fictional characters.

We read, in short, because books and stories enable us to transcend the limitations and the loneliness of being only one person with but one life to live. George R. R. Martin perfectly expressed the reason we read in this passage from A Dance with Dragons:

“Do you like to read books, Bran?” Jojen asked him.

“Some books. I like the fighting stories. My sister Sansa likes the kissing stories, but those are stupid.”

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.”

Find a good book to read, and the time you spend in its pages will never be wasted or idle. That book will not only entertain you, but it will show you who you are and it will teach you how to live.

“Those who will not read are no better off than those who cannot read.”
—Jim Rohn

“Jesus used stories when he spoke to the people.
In fact, he did not tell them anything without using stories.”
—Matthew 13:34 CEV




Note: Battle Before Time, the first book in my newly revised and updated Timebenders series for young readers, has just been released in paperback. Click this link to learn more.

And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.


Jim Denney also blogs at Writing in Overdrive and Walt’s Disneyland

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