While in the forums the other day I read a question that’s fairly simple and yet quite profound: How do your reading habits influence your writing? I think there are a lot of good short answers to this question, but I thought I’d attempt a longer one.
I think what we read has a huge influence on what we write. It is part of who we are. My bones are made of book spines, and my skin from a million slender pages. What I read is a huge part of who I am. These stories are some of the building blocks for how I see and construct my world, and I often understand my world in relation to these stories. We take in stories and make them part of ourselves, and yet we shape our consciousness in the same way. Who we are, mind and memory, is shaped. We give it form and structure. It is how we make our lives cohesive and understandable. Our lives, our own minds, are the story of us… as we tell it to ourselves. It is the inter-braiding of a thousand stories, fictional or not, and this is the world as we each know it.
This is bound to be reflected in our writing. If we are shaped by stories, the stories we shape in turn will have reflections of that world. Echoes, shadows, pale reflections… this is who we are, and we can never completely escape that in our writing. And yet conscious and unconscious thoughts can shape the writing, can move it, can push it in new directions and make new connections. This is our imagination acting on that vast story that forms our consciousness.
And so we make a new story out of ourselves. We move within it, always making, always creating. And yet it can be difficult. We can wrestle with the stories we know (and with our own “self” story). Newness can be a challenge.
We change as readers and writers. We move from story to story, and each one leaves a little mark… or a big one. We are not the same readers we once were. I have difficulty with simplistic writing, clunky writing. It might be a fun story, but I lose patience if the writing doesn’t work. I can’t get lost in a story if the words don’t take me there.
And this is true for our writing, too. Such shifts are usually reflected. Input, output. Stories we reflect, and mirror, and change. Refracted at strange angles… and yet the source is there.
We wrestle with it. I remember starting my current fantasy novel. I wanted a fantasy novel… and yet not something typical. Epic fantasy with a literary, character focus. And so I started writing.
Yet it was not right. The voice… was simply the voice of similar novels I’d read before. These typical novels, seeping together in bland style. Little stories that had become part of me. They’d created paths in my head. Ruts, if you will, from long wear. Certain things were done certain ways. Certain stories used certain language. No, it wasn’t right. Wasn’t new. It was not a true reflection of what I wanted, of my own self story.
I had to write it over. I stripped the conventions away and wrote the same actions in a style and structure that was ultra literary. This wasn’t right either, but it freed me from the ruts. It jerked me out of repetition. It widened the view on my own story.
The truth, the voice, was somewhere in the middle. Writing, writing, writing it again. And soon the voice was there in the rough. There was still an echo of those hundreds of fantasy novels I’d read, and yet there was more, too. Echoes of Tim O’Brien, Anne Patchett, Ian McEwan. Echoes of other writers and other forms, echoes of a million stories that had gone into me and now sought release.
This is what makes each story unique. Not the singularity of a story, but a unique multiplicity. I know writers who fear reading. If they read while writing the other voice seeps in, takes over their own. But I try never to fear this. If you write long enough you will find your own voice. And what is that? It is the ability, I think, to reach in and grasp all those stories, the vast self story, rather than just a single one. Your voice ceases to echo a single voice (the deafening voice of a mentoring love), and rather pulls itself out of a vast choir, stealing a note here and a note there to craft a new song, a new hymn on the possibility of story.