Should You Read And Write?

Recently, when I reached a sticky point in my writing, when I was really struggling, I noticed that I had stopped reading.  Normally I have one reading book on the go and another audiobook which I listen to as I clock up my 25,000 miles a year.  But now, although I had books lined up to read, I just couldn’t put my mind to starting any of them.

Why?  Perhaps I was frightened of reading the work of others when my own writing wasn’t going so well.  Or perhaps reading is itself a creative activity which involves a willing imagination and mine had simply run dry.

In my teens, I used to try to write like Jane Austen, fabricating elegant, ironically detached prose.  Of course, I failed as Jane Austen and I failed as myself. This failure rendered me deeply distrustful of reading books (especially books I loved) whilst trying to create something of my own. I understood that it was important to get to know the great works of literature, but I wanted to keep them at arm’s length lest they infect my own unique style.  (A unique style which co-incidentally I had not yet developed).

Later, when writing my first novel, I found myself reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude.’  I was terrified one of my characters might inadvertently float up to the sky whilst pinning out the washing. They didn’t. But, reading over those sections of the book I’d written whilst under Marquez’s influence, there was definitely a difference, discernible to me at least, if not to any reader. Hard to say exactly what it was– maybe a slight shift in narrative tone, maybe a descriptive slant, maybe a vaguely surreal plot turn. Those influences which I felt were too obvious, I edited out.  But where the effect was more subtle, I decided it was all for the good.

Writers are told to read extensively because that’s how you learn the nuts and bolts of writing. That’s how you get to examine how other writers pull things off.  But the subliminal influence of another writer’s work is just as, if not more, valuable. Literature, like experience, goes into the unconscious melting pot that feeds the creative mind.

The good news is that I’ve got my Mojo back, both as writer and reader.  I have just finished reading a very readable thriller called ‘A Strange Embrace’ by Gail Levy.  I have finished listening to a fascinating and moving non-fiction audiobook  by psychoanalyst, Stephen Grosz called ‘The Examined Life.’ I’ve started listening to Nick Cave’s audio book of his novel, ‘The Death of Bunny Munro’ and I’m currently reading my first DeLillo: ‘Falling Man.’  How these books will influence my writing, I don’t know.  But I’m looking forward to finding out.

john updike

John Updike


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7 Responses to Should You Read And Write?

  1. Anu says:

    I feel exactly the same. Read better, write better. It can be quite motivational too for all those days when you feel and talentless.

  2. claudia says:

    Yes, yes, Anu. Lesson learnt = don’t ever be scared of reading, it can only do you good.

  3. Great to hear you are back on form C xx

    • Also this put me in mind of something unexpected – from Boy George, about his new album and getting back to the music after a gap: “There have been a few periods over the years where I didn’t listen to music. It was almost like the birds stopped singing. I can measure my own wellness by how much I listen to music.”

      • claudia says:

        Yes, I can relate to that completely. Whether or not I’m reading is a clear indicator of how healthy, or otherwise, is my state of being.

  4. Andy Wilson says:

    Bad reading can be good! That is, reading novels in a similar genre but which don’t quite get it, or even those that are cringeworthily poor, can be very instructive. The errors, once identified, can be a very useful learning tool.

    I really zoom in on lack of credibility in the plot or characters. I don’t know whether it comes with the territory but within the dystopia genre there seems plenty to choose from. I’m not talking about the stories that are fantasy – clearly they make their own rules in terms of what is or isn’t possible. However, the ones that try to say “the world could really be like this” then need to sell that world to the reader.

    Although I used the example of dystopias, the same analysis can be applied to any other genre. One thing that really jars with me in thrillers/suspense novels of any kind is the billion-to-one chance event that saves the day.

    The other positive thing about reading bad, is that it gives hope. You read something, quite possibly a best seller, and you think, wow that was seriously crap.

    • claudia says:

      I agree, Andy, all reading is instructive for a writer. I haven’t read many dystopian novels but I think, even if they’re pure fantasy, it’s important for the writer to remain consistent to the world they’ve created.

      I also struggle with the billion-to-one chance, the deus ex machina as it was termed on my course, whereby everything is suddenly resolved thanks to some sudden unlikely event or other intervention. I can imagine many thrillers being guilty of this. But so too are literary novels. I’m not sure literary novelists spend a huge amount of time worrying about plot lines. They’re often too busy pursuing character and theme in a more organic fashion. Don’t get me wrong – I like that. Literary fiction is what I read ninety per cent of the time. But sometimes, towards the end of the book, the author seems to realise they need to make something happen in order to present us with an ending, or the semblance of a story, or to wrap things up. And they go and stick in some unlikely turn of events, or piece of high drama, as a last minute nod to the conventions of plot.
      I think planning ahead is a good way to circumvent this, but that’s a whole other discussion.

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