||I read every day. You must, as an ambitious writer, want to be around well-chosen words as badly as oxygen or water. I don't think you have to produce them every day - in fact, it's good to let your brain lie fallow [see Play Dates].
To help me do this, I read, daily by subscription: The New York Post, The New York Times, mediabistro.com, WriterL, the mediapro forum, medianews.org.
Every week: The New Yorker, New York, The Washington Post Weekly edition, The Chronicle of Higher Education. (I gave up the New York Observer to save time and mailbox space.)
Every month: Chatelaine, Toronto Life, Glamour, House and Garden, House Beautiful, Bazaar, Vanity Fair, More. (In addition, sometimes, Harper's, Atlantic, Martha Stewart Living [yes, I'm obssessed with design!], French and British shelter magazines, Time, Newsweek.) Sometimes a random assortment of big-city U.S., Canadian or British newspapers.
I read all of these for many reasons. Mostly for work. To find out what's going on and how many editors are talking or thinking about the same issues. Market research, so I don't pitch a story they just did. To see what hasn't yet been talked about very much. To find story ideas. To find sources. To build up my own store of general knowledge to enrich my own stories. To read other writers' work and judge how effectively they handle anecdote, ledes, structure, narrative, humor and basic reporting. To play detective: where did that story originate? A press release? A trade publication? A trusted source? Something juicy overheard on the street?
You can't be(come) a great writer, let alone average, if you don't love to read. At every phase of their careers, ambitious dancers go to performances, musicians listen to their idols in concert or on CD and artists go to galleries and museums - all in search of inspiration, technique, a glimpse of genius.
I read books for pure pleasure. It's a literary lagniappe, not the quotidian food groups that make up my work-related consumption. There's no justifiable professional reason to settle into a café banquette or the sofa and disappear into Balzac or Zola or Richard Ford or Margaret Drabble or Chekhov or Claire Messud. Except that they write so beautifully.
I love it when, quite accidentally, I read two books in succession whose themes and concerns, even their tone, echo one another. This happened to me recently when I read "Are You Somebody?" by Irish journalist Nuala O'Faoloain and, immediately thereafter, "Brief Lives" by British writer Anita Brookner. In these two books, in heartbreakingly unsentimental prose, each describes becoming sexually invisible in her 50s and 60s, watching the world of love and passion and romance and wild affairs fall away behind you like some highway you have raced along too quickly and would love to regain but cannot.
Books have always been my refuge from boredom or loneliness or anxiety. At my 20th high school reunion I turned up with one tucked under my arm; it was a long subway ride across the sprawling city of Toronto to get to the school and, typically, I spent the journey reading. Three of my closest friends from those years spotted me and shrieked, "You're carrying a book!" Well, yes. "You always carried a book!" (I had totally forgotten this.)
I also started early writing to authors. They wrote back. I have a postcard in reply to my first fan letter, which I sent to Ray Bradbury when I was 12 and up north at summer camp. I wrote to his publisher in New York City and had my reply within two weeks from his home in California. Ten years later I wrote, twice, to the late John Cheever who was also gracious enough to write back, again on stationery with his home address. It was unimaginable to me that these two men, both world-famous by then, would take the time to answer a letter from some young fan thousands of miles, and decades of experience, away.
But they did. It made me realize writers are real. What we do really can touch strangers. What a privilege!