12 March 2012

What Should You Read While Writing?

by Imogen Reed

Raise your hand if someone has told you that, as a writer, they never read other writers’ work.  ‘I don’t want to be influenced by anyone else’s style,’ you have probably heard said at a writing group or workshop. 
Their ban on reading may be limited to the time spent working on a particular project, such as a novel-in-progress, or perhaps is just an all-out refusal to let other writers’ voices into their heads. 

Expert writers published many times over have been known to say they a. don’t have time to read because they are too busy writing, and b. don’t want to be influenced.  Yes, they come off a bit cranky, a bit defensive– and you feel you’re being treated like a cold-caller who’s just offered them a better loan rate on their credit card.

Other writers read incessantly and keep photos of their favorite authors hung framed on the walls of their home office. Those writers not only scoff at the risk of influence to their work, their thrive on it and relish the inspiration provided courtesy of the great ones who came before.
Keeping this in mind, you may still be asking these questions:
  • should risk being influenced by other writers?
  • if you take this risk, what should you be reading?
A Matter of Influence

Recently, a well-respected architect who had just finished a project was accused of plagiarism in an online forum.  The two buildings, which were built in two different countries, had a few similar qualities.  A rebuttal coming from one fan of the architect was: ‘architecture is the story of people influencing other people who influence other people…’

The same may be said of writing. The craft of writing is, first and foremost, the craft of communication. Obvious though that may be, most writers would say that they were inspired to become writers because what they read in their formative years influenced them. Whether we do so consciously or not, we pay homage to the writers who influenced us.  Our styles already show influence, as we are not re-inventing the wheel with our writing. Not wanting to be influenced by other writers is like a chef saying they don’t want to eat because they might be influenced by other flavors. An extreme example, perhaps; but if you ask a person who is a passionate reader, it may not seem so extreme to them.

At the novice level, reluctance to read may also reflect the burgeoning writer’s level of confidence. As you read, you are likely to compare your unfinished manuscript to the work of a writer who has been published (perhaps several times over) and has had the benefit of using beta-readers, possibly their agent, not to mention their editor. This certainly can be damaging to self-esteem. It’s important to recognize that what you are doing is detrimental to the creative process. Writing, like any other form of expression (dance, music, and to return to an earlier example) takes years of training and practice. Think of a novice singer recording herself on a tape-recorder comparing herself to an album by a musical great, recorded in a studio and processed by a host of professionals. Is that a reason for her to stop singing? Of course not. 

What (Not) to Read

If you’re writing a novel about horse-racing, you may be tempted to order every novel on Amazon related to horses.  And here is where you stop, take a breath, press the delete button at check-out.  Research is one thing, but flooding the mind with other artistic images of horses is quite another.  It will be hard to be original in your perception of horses, when you’re only thinking about how Michael Morpurgo sees a horse (or Steven Spielberg, for that matter).  The best and most moving writing is that which is original, and that which approximates the experience in itself and captures its essence.  This can hardly be done as a third party.  Leave off of your subject matter and try to experience what you are writing about for yourself, i.e. go out and commune with nature, ride and groom the yourself, and leave other novels out of it for a while.  

Reading ‘How to Write’ Books

While using them is a matter of personal taste, there are endless volumes of ‘How to Write’ books out there for novice writers to peruse.  Cherry-pick from them, as they not only contain information about style, but also about things like writers’ rituals and research practices.  One of the best is ‘Your Creative Writing Masterclass’ by Jurgen Wolff, which is full of the quotes of celebrated authors of antiquity.  This is a great book for getting in touch with writers of the past, without ever picking up one of their novels.

Most of us who are writers cannot stop reading, even for a day. The process is different for everyone, however, and every writer will find his/her own unique methods.  The best advice, in every case, is to do what works best for you,  and once you do, not to adopt zealously what you read in advice columns like this one, but follow your own sense of what’s right.

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