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.