I think writers get off pretty easy. One of the best things we can do to improve our skills is to read. Read widely. I read for pleasure, and I read for craft. Sometimes both in the same book. I love reading, falling into another world and finding myself experiencing someone else's highs, lows, pains and pleasures. I learn so much about the world and human nature through a good book or short story. And all of that is useful for me, not only as a writer but as a person.
Lately, I've read a lot of short stories. Some really, really good, masterful stories that have inspired me. Some great stories that teach me a bit about openings and endings and literary styles. And some less accomplished stories that give me a chance to think about how I might have changed the structure or characterization. Mostly, I've been thinking about the novel-in-stories that I'm writing and how anything I take away from my reading could be applied to my stories.
I call it homework.
Here's one thing I know: I can write for the rest of my life, and I will always have something to learn, areas when I can strengthen my craft. And that's a good thing. It means I will never get tired of writing, never feel like I've done it all, seen it all, know it all.
People look at someone like Margaret Atwood and say: "Why does she write so many different kinds of things? Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, even books for kids." I think I may understand why. Because each time she tries a different type of writing, she breaks new ground, develops new skills, challenges herself and rediscovers the initial joy of trying. And maybe even failing.
Yep, I said it. Even the Margaret Atwoods fail. What kind of life would this be if we didn't fail? Think of how much we learn when things don't quite go the way we planned. When there are hurdles that we have to struggle to get over.
Homework is one of those small hurdles. Like I said, for writers our homework is what other people call a leisure activity. We're pretty lucky, aren't we?