Some of the most prevalent concerns writers have when starting to write longer projects are based on – naturally – a desire to be able to maintain, prolong and expand said new and often terrifying (and at first still imaginary) long piece of writing. One of these concerns manifests itself in various forms of a similar question:
- How much should I be reading before and during writing periods?
- Will reading authors I love ‘pollute’ my own writing?
- Should I leave reading fiction (or any form of your choice) to one side and concentrate on theory, research, or other forms I will not be practising? Would that not result in a purer and original piece?
Before we can answer these, it’s important to figure out exactly what we might mean by ‘voice pollution’, or why we may fear excessive influence from the works we read over the works we have yet to write. Is it a fear of a kind of unconscious plagiarism, of being a lesser version of something we love? Does it relate to thematic content, plot, characters, tonality or structure? Or, is it the case that, like in most relationships based on admiration, we are overtaken by a mixture of love and fear for the works and authors we feel might influence us? It might be time to pick this fear apart. And it might be time to value respect over admiration by understanding all writing as interconnected construction.
Indeed, one of the easiest ways to counter this read-as-I-write anxiety is by first understanding it as a product of an inability to see or feel the connections between our own writing and that of other people. On my last post, I mentioned that effective communication is based on a consensus of meaning. That is, even the meaning of a single word is in itself an expression of a relationship between ourselves and a wider – and ever-changing – community. I would say that a novel is no different. To fear a direct connection between our writing and our reading is to believe in the futile pursuit of disconnected originality (one that could originate in a cultural vacuum). It is also to misunderstand tradition (after all, breaking away from any tradition acknowledges their existence in the first place), and to carry a weight that would only feed our insecurities. It wouldn’t lead to productivity or pleasure either. We would feel isolated.
So here’s some advice: READ AS YOU WRITE. Always read. And use your reading too. Liberate yourself from this fear and write as an equal to the writers you love. When you next find yourself reading a novel you like, try to emulate its writing (and understand what made you dislike others too, if that’s the case). How is the book achieving this pace? Why do I feel angry/sad/happy for this or that character? What is it about this sentencing that makes me feel unsettled? Why does this abstract noun not bother me in this sentence, but does so in many others (see Kundera for case study…). The bottom line is, your reading time is as creative and productive as your writing time. If you were told to build the most beautiful table in the world, you would look for designs online or in shops, research, practise, fail, and try again; all to get an overall understanding of what’s been done before – what has worked, what hasn’t – and what we could do differently.
You might not be famous like the authors you love. You might not have mastered plotting yet, or even holding consistent tones. But practise what you read, question all constructions, and I promise you that your writing process will get better too. And let’s not worry about originality and ‘voice pollution’ or excessive influence. If we understand how we connect to others, then we understand that there’s nothing to pollute in writing – but there’s a whole lot to share.
Gonzalo C. Garcia is a writer and Senior Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing in the Warwick Writing Programme. His interests are neo-liberal reforms in Chile in relation to cultural authenticity, memory, nostalgia, and historical trauma. His upcoming novel, We Are The End is heavily influenced by his marked interest in Santiago de Chile, video games, digital culture and everyday constructions of narrative. It is currently nominated for the Edinburgh Festival First Novel Award 2017 and launches in September with Galley Beggar Press.
Directed by Maureen Freely and David Morley, the Warwick Writing Programme at University of Warwick prides itself in having writing staff who not only teach but are also published authors involved in the writing industry and literary scenes. It has just opened an exciting PhD programme in Creative Writing alongside its internationally recognised flagship BA and MA programmes.
For more on the Warwick Writing Programme: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/writingprog/