Writer in Residence

On Reading

By Nancy Jo Cullen


Writers need to read— I offered this advice earlier in the summer— and I sincerely hope it’s not news to any writer looking at this post that reading is a most instructive way to learn what does, and doesn’t, work on the page. I read for pleasure, for inspiration, and also, for guidance.

In the research and early writing stages of my recently published first novel I turned to long-form fiction to study how a novel can work. I was especially interested in how short novels work, and how writers managed the passage of time.  I found the flash-forwards in Muriel Spark’s, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, immensely instructive in this respect. I read a couple of Hemingway novels thinking of short, sharp lines, and I read as much contemporary fiction as I had time for, novels and short-fiction collections. I wanted to be immersed in thinking about stories and how I might apply some of the techniques I admired to my own work.

There is a point for me in every book-length project where I come to hate my idea. It’s a despairing period when I’m not quite finished, when I can’t work out the kinks in the book, and when I feel like I’ve written a bunch of repetitive, derivative, embarrassing shite.


At this stage of the process with my novel I felt entirely lost; I wasn’t able to connect that what I was feeling in that moment was akin to what I’d experienced before. Writing a novel is a marathon of sorts and I found myself arrived at a place too far along to quit, but not far enough along to (quite) believe I could come to the end.  I was in a fiction-hating funk and reading novels and short stories—all so much better executed than I felt mine was— only served to make me feel worse.

Thank the goddess for poetry!

The space on the page in poetry, and the conciseness of the line, primed me for finishing the final draft of the novel, and then for working on the actual final drafts of the novel during the editing process. (You know, like fake spring in April and real spring in May.)

I love to move slowly through a poetry collection, to read a poem or two and just let those poems knock around in my head for a while. In the final stages of writing my novel lingering over poems really helped my to think about focus; it helped me to tighten the lines in my manuscript and to jettison whole bits that, upon reflection, weighed the book down. Poetry reminded me that less can be more.

Now I find myself nearing the end of a poetry collection and I’m pretty much in the place I am accustomed to finding myself, I’m struggling not to feel disengaged from the manuscript. Through much of the book I’ve worked with formal constraints to construct the poems. Returning to prose, and the longer meandering form of its lines, is permitting me to shift, to allow some of the poems longer and less obvious breaks, and to think more narratively inside of the poem. My idea of how a poem can work and how I can proceed is loosening up, influenced by the prose I have returned to.

Reading the work of other authors provides me insight into my own writing and the various problems I encounter in the process of creating a narrative, whether it’s a problem in the story, or in my psyche. I want to delight in the smartness of other writers and to be influenced by their brilliance as I encounter it. I’m not worried that I will find myself copying another writer or that the tone in my own project will suddenly change because I’m reading another author. Immersing myself in the work of other authors inspires me to try harder, to want to be better, and to push myself along on my path. It also brings me to consider the wider community of writers I’m a part of, and to think more deeply about how and why I write. Seeking out influence through the pleasures of reading keeps me grounded in the craft of writing and eager to carry on.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Nancy Jo Cullen is the fourth recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and her short story collection, Canary, was the winner of the 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. She lived in Calgary for over two decades and still returns regularly to connect with family and friends. She now lives in Kingston, Canada.

Nancy's latest novel, The Western Alienation Merit Badge, was published in Spring 2019 by Wolsak & Wynn, to wide critical acclaim.