“On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.”
[Michel de Montaigne]
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut,” says Stephen King. So that's a good starting point—we want to read books, good stories, all kinds of timeless stories. Fiction is where we can learn from some of the masters of the craft, like King.
To understand why we read so we can translate that to our writing, we want to be particularly observant of how the story makes us feel. When explaining why people buy books in On Writing King says:
Book-buyers aren't attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep then turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk.
When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own like and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story. I'd argue that it's impossible to make this sort of connection in a premeditated way, gauging the marker like a racetrack tout with a hot tip.
Applying this to our writing, even when we talk about work—“people love to read about work”—we want to practice finding our sweet spot, the voice coming from a combination of what we know and the story we want to tell. But the work is in service of the story, and the story in service of the connection. There's no escaping that.
Reading the great writers is much easier, and much more enjoyable, than becoming a good writer. Beyond knowing the work, this requires we have knowledge of life, relationships, to have experienced friendship, love and loss—this is how the depth of despair in Greek tragedies pulls us in. Aristotle described the effect of tragic drama on its audience as a purifying or figurative cleansing of the emotions like pity and fear.
Consider John Grisham breakout novel, The Firm. In this story, a young lawyer discovers that his first job, which seemed too good to be trues, rally is—he's working for the Mafia. Suspenseful, involving, and paced at breakneck speed, The First sold roughly nine gazillion copies.
What seemed to fascinate its audience was the moral dilemma in which the young lawyer finds himself: working for the mob is bad, no argument there, but the frocking pay is great! You can drive a Beemer, and that's just for openers!
And yes, as readers we also enjoy how he tries to extricate himself, his resourcefulness. Because that's how we'd like to behave. There's a reason why it's easier to like than to do. We should also not be fooled by what looks simple, as simplicity in writing is a testimony of mastery. When a writers constructs a world that is “impossible not to believe,” like Grisham did, it means he's been there. That's the difference.
Michel de Montaigne In an essay on The Vanity of Words retold a story of a Spartan rhetorician that his trade was to make big shoes for little feet. “Eloquence most flourished at Rome when the public affairs were in the worst condition and most disquieted with intestine commotions; as a free and untilled soil bears the worst weeds.”
We read for enjoyment, but also to learn the difference of what it takes to write a story well told. In our times there are no end of little footed people wanting to walk around in big shoes full of pride and vanity, deceiving themselves to be wise and intelligent.
A good book opens a secret door to a new experience of imagination. But it's doing the work that brings it to life.