The subject today is again about the intersection of writing and reading.
But this time, not so much a rant about reading, as an attempt to unpack another question I get asked a lot by less experienced writers in classes and workshops: Should I avoid reading too much of the kind of material I want to write?
This one is less black and white as why writers need to read, though at first blush it appears to warrant a quick answer, as in, no of course not, don't be so silly.
But if I'm understanding the question properly – and since I've asked people who pose it to explain exactly what they mean, I think I do – the inquiry boils down to: If I read too much of the kind of writing I aspire to, won't I, even unintentionally, begin to mimic others' style? Won't I get another writing voice in my head when I should be listening only to my own?
First things first.
I believe we must read deeply and broadly from what I call our writing sweet spot: If you aspire to be a humorist, you read good humor writers. If you hope to write about trauma or a painful past, you read nonfiction which tackle trauma and painful pasts. If you want to write historical fiction, you read a lot of historical fiction. Poets read poetry. You get the idea.
The reasons are obvious – to see how others do it, and how well and how remarkable it is possible to be on the page. You'll discover places you can go with your work that you never considered before. You will also sometimes encounter stuff you don't want to do.
If you wanted to build an entire new kitchen in your home and you had very little building experience or maybe your building experience was only comprised of building commercial offices, and your cousin the master builder was putting in a new kitchen at a house just down the road and invited you to come along and watch, well - wouldn't you?
The next part, the notion of being unduly influenced by other writers is interesting but really not all that different. In short, I wouldn't really worry about it.
In the above example, your eventual kitchen might utilize some of the same techniques as your cousin's, and who knows, maybe even some of the same materials and similar colors and appliances as your cousin's, but it wouldn't BE that same kitchen. It wouldn't even look much like his kitchen because your house has different dimensions, and structural constraints, and you have a different budget and differing taste. Maybe he was building a showpiece kitchen for folks who mostly eat out, but yours is a kitchen for people who love to cook at home.
Your writing style will be your own, your writing will be your own too. You can't help that. You are stuck with yourself. Usually, for most artists, that's a very good thing. And you know what, if you end up writing like the next (fill in the name of any literary god) well is that a bad thing?
If you were (even subconsciously) to be so heavily influenced by another writer that you began to write in his/her style, that's also not bad news. A little imitation is often a good writing teacher; in fact many writing teachers assign imitative writing as a craft exercise.
Going forward, you won't be able to maintain that imitative style anyway. Your own writing proclivities, quirks and style will always win out. Even if you tried with every ounce of your being to write exactly like a fabulous (or even a bad!) writer, you can't. At least not for more than a few pages. And probably not even that long. Plus, you have different reasons for writing, and different experiences, different ideas about language, a different vocabulary, different urges and intention. That writer has one thing to say, and you have another.
Another reason TO read widely from the sliver of bookshelf you hope to one day occupy is to discover where your material fits in. Do you, as you hope, really have anything new to add to the literary conversation?
Now, having said all of that I also have to admit that there's something to be said for NOT reading from your writing sweet spot at certain times.
What times? Some writer say when they are deeply entrenched in a project, at one stage or another according to their own lights, that's when they want to screen out voices that are maybe a little too close to their writing voice.
I know a few memoir writers who read memoirs voraciously in between projects and up until the early stages of a new manuscript. But then they switch to reading third person fiction so that the only first person voice they are hearing in their heads as they are writing, is their own. I know one young adult novelist who will only read journalism while she's working on the first draft of a book, but then once she's sure of the arc of the story, she's okay with reading everything again.
When I'm reading a book for review, I tend to not read any other book in the same genre at the
same time. When I'm in the revision stages, or rewriting, a memoir piece, I too avoid reading memoir. But when I write personal essay, I practically inhale other personal essays. Everyone's different.
Then there's this.
Most writers I know (me too) will tell you that when stuck, the first place we go is to the bookshelf. Why? Well sometimes we just want to read for a bit, to get out of our own work and inside someone else's, to distract ourselves, but not leave the world of words entirely. But more likely, we want to see how X author (or ten other writers) did it. We're not looking to crib easy "answers" but to get inspired by writers we respect, to reassure ourselves that it's possible to get out of whatever writing corner we've gotten ourselves into.
I like this quote from a legendary stage performer, who was asked how he'd advise aspiring artists: "Watch the masters at work."
As writers, we "watch" the masters at work by reading what they've written.
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