Just the other day, I decided to re-visit a chapter of my sort-of-in-progress novel. Things were rolling along beautifully. The dialogue in the rewrite sounded peppier and I did away with some laborious turns of phrase in the descriptive passages. Pleased, I rewarded myself by reading a few more chapters of someone else’s book. That particular mystery novelist has the knack of combining mayhem and humour in a brilliant way. Her dialogue is peppy and all the descriptive passages are short, snappy and…oh. Yup – “sponge effect” in operation. I think I absorbed some of the author’s writing persona into my own. That can’t be good, can it?
I don’t know if this is just a personal quirk or a quality other writers might share, but I have a roving writer’s voice that just won’t say put. Sometimes my tone is serious and intellectual and I write in-depth blog posts on deeply spiritual matters. Or a sense of fun kicks in and Cato, my feline alter ego, posts a story. Then there’s the melancholic philosopher or the cynical observer, neither of whose blog posts you’d like to read, I’m sure.
I used to put this inconsistency down to changing moods that allow different parts of my personality to come through, but now I’m questioning that. I’ve heard other writers say that good writing comes from copious reading. Surely some of them are affected by writing styles of favourite authors. And, if what we read affects our own writing, should we focus only on reading the greats – the writers who produce classic works of quality and craftsmanship? That doesn’t sound like much fun.
I love what Edward Albee said in one interview:
If you are going to learn from other writers, don’t only read the great ones, because if you do that, you’ll get so filled with despair and the fear that you’ll never be able to do anywhere near as well as they did that you’ll stop writing. I recommend that you read a lot of bad stuff too. It’s very encouraging. “Hey, I can do so much better than this." Read the greatest stuff, but read the stuff that isn’t so great too.*Hey, if Albee can do it…
And then I found this advice from Stephen King:
The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order...The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen...**
He adds that prolific reading helps our own language to flow. Another plus is that we’ll become familiar with what’s out there - what’s fresh or has become trite and overdone.
Okay, I think I can handle that. Do I like to read a lot? Check. A diverse blend of soul-stirring and fluffy writing styles? Check. Maybe the trick is to let all those words steep, deep down inside, in the place where spirit meets Spirit. Surely, the One I know and love – the One who recombined water molecules into the best of wines – can draw something beautiful from the soul of a sponge.
* Quoted by Jon Winokur, Advice to Writers, 1999** Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, 2000
Sponge - http://www.flickr.com/photos/21561428@N03/5334281676/
Water and wine - http://www.flickr.com/photos/airguy1988/6980730949/