Monday, April 19, 2010

My Bones are Made of Book Spines

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.


Ben Carroll said...

This is interesting. I don't think I've 'found' my own voice yet, because I haven't written enough... or maybe haven't read enough.

One thing I always notice is that whenever I read a Kurt Vonnegut novel, I always start writing in (A pale imitation of) his voice. Because it's unique, or infectious, or so much a part of his work, I don't know.

L. T. Host said...

Your writing is so beautiful. I can't wait to buy a book of yours someday.

Such a good point, too. It's easy to chameleon voice-- e.g., copy it from another author. It's not so easy to find your own. I've found writing in first person really helps me write in my voice, because it helps me write in my character's voice.

Voice is so important, but it's also so nebulous and so hard to grasp.

Unknown said...

If only well crafted words can pull you into a story you have certainly done a beautiful job of that here. Though the content is also fascinating. Sometimes I'm guilty of "Writing under the influence" but I try to remind myself that I will read plenty more books and write plenty more drafts before I am finished with a piece. By then (or so I hope) whatever is left of the imitation will only be the influence that book has had on me as a person.

Bryan Russell said...

Yeah, it can be really tricky at times. I think the act of reading forms certain patterns and channels, and it can be easier to simply flow down that channel than it is to find a different course. As Ben said, if you read a bunch of Vonnegut you're gonna start seeing his patterns, start feeling his patterns. Sometimes it takes a conscious effort to wrench yourself away from such an influence. Sometimes it's natural to find your own voice... sometimes it takes a fair bit of conscious effort. Sometimes a bit of both.

Funnily enough, one of the things that helped me escape that sense of influence was to actually write a bunch of stories "in the style of" different writers. But a punch of different writers. Study them carefully, understand their tics, their sense of flow and rhythm... and then write. Doing it a bunch of times with the same writer can be dangerous. We get in that fan-fiction/imitation area, and those channels will be even harder to climb out of. But write new stuff in the voices of lots of writers? I think in the end I'd learned a lot. And, going to write my own stuff, I wasn't working in the mold of any of those writers... yet I could draw on elements of their writing, on knowledge I'd gleaned from them.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I think we humans are naturally mimicking creatures, and so it is easy to absorb that voice from what you read. When I review books on my blog, I consciously try to write the review in the voice of the book, pulling out words and twists on phrases that give you the feel of the book as you read the review. (note: I only review books that I love)

The larger idea of books influence goes beyond, I believe, just the affect on writers, but the effect on people in general, and children in particular. Stories are the way we explain the world to ourselves, and to our children.

I am still finding my voice, and I am amazed that it doesn't sound like anyone else. It's how I write when I'm being my most authentic - which sounds really cheesy, but is true nonetheless.

Mira said...

Gorgeous post, Bryan.

Your conclusion, about the unique multiplicity, was beautifully said, a different perspective and rang true.

Also, your line: "My bones are made of book spines, and my skin from a million slender pages."

That's a poem, Bryan.

For me - I'm scared of losing my tenatively found voice, but I'll think about what you're saying. There's merit here. I think....the only way out may be through. :)

Bryan Russell said...


If it's your voice, I don't think you can really lose it. Just write it.

(I'm like Nike, only less rich)

Bryan Russell said...


I very much agree that stories are how we explain the world to ourselves. Or at least I do.

On a side note, for some reason your blog always crashes my web browser. Which doesn't take much, admittedly, since my browser is a little schizophrenic these days. But it's weird. Your site is an automatic crash for me. I don't think my computer likes books for children. Too much James Joyce, maybe. I shall have to ration it.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

That one link kills my browser. Here's me, trying not to be FAIL at linking:

Stories are the way we explain the world to ourselves, and to our children.

Ink, since your browser clearly hates me, I will have to circumvent its evil designs against kidlit, and send you them the old fashioned way: email. :)

Zoe C. Courtman said...

Ah, great, great post. Thanks. For me, reading a TON is what KEEPS me from mimicking the voice or style of other writers. It also keeps me updated on the market (while keeping me up at night, reading and learning how language ebbs and flows). Loved the post!

Bryan Russell said...


I agree completely. I also think it's one of the reasons it can be really good to read widely outside one genre. I think as a writer you're less likely to fall into those patterns and ruts, into imitation, as you have a greater variety of stories to draw on.

Matthew MacNish said...

This is so true Ink, thanks for sharing.

What are we but the sum of our experiences? Why try to be anything else?

dolorah said...

My women's fiction has a distinct voice, I think, but that voice is dull and depressing. I'm reading other similar books in order to help me lighten mine without losing the intensity of the work itself.

At first I was afraid I'd use another author's verbiage/voice in my own, but once I start writing, I find my own character's voice again.

But in my search for distinct voice, I've also opened myself up to a whole range of reading material I'd always been leary of picking up.

Bryan, there is an excellent and timely message for me in this post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter. They always make me think in terms of craft, and I need that boost sometimes.