Reading as a Recipe for Writing

If you'd like to hear what I listened to while writing this post, enjoy this while reading. (Repeat advised.)

The end of January marks an important point in my young life. That is, finally having some semblance of a life returned to me after finishing the 200k word monstrosity of a book that I started in the middle of last February. Although I am not completely content with that number given the time it's taken, I often forget that throughout this period, I wrote dozens of poems, more than a handful of short stories (two of them contest winners) as well as articles, blog posts, and I even squeezed in a vacation abroad. At least, that's what I try to remember so I can sleep better at night.

Today, while I procrastinate weeping in front of the final moments as they materialize in the last pages, I thought of a topic relevant for any writers wrestling with a question that haunted me throughout this entire process. More importantly, I want to share the catharsis I found after resolving it.

Should I read the works of other authors while penning my novel?

If you asked me a year ago, my answer was a dead, flat, "no". Like many, if that question was ever directed at me, I told them that I was not comfortable with the notion because I found that the author's writing style snuck into my own, that I began to unconsciously mimic their inner voice after hearing it in my head. If any eyebrows were raised at this, I would immediately whip out the following anecdote.

Back when Little Harlequin was a freshman in high school, after writing the first three chapters to his first novel, he sheepishly presented it to, of all people, his gym teacher. We'll call him Professor Remus Lupin. Professor Lupin, (who would later become an English and language instructor), was a published author of a short book for middle-grade students. For any readers abroad, this is generally between the ages of ten and fourteen. Seeing as how he had experience in the publishing industry, Little Harlequin clung to Professor Lupin and squeezed out as much as advice as he could get without risking becoming the untimely victim of homicidal throttling.

Adolescent nuisances aside, almost immediately after the class during which Little Harlequin attempted to unearth and wield an innate talent in dodgeball that was never discovered, he approached Professor Lupin. 

"What did you think?" Little Harlequin asked. Even then, the boy suffered from few delusions of grandeur. He was prepared for a walloping. He still is, by the way.

Professor Lupin chuckled, shook his head and after shuffling the pages between his hands, the very first thing that left his mouth was this:  "You've been reading a lot of Poe, haven't you?"

Little Harlequin's jaw slackened. Psychic gym teacher? Genius? Or ... had he simply seen the gargantuan paragraphs of psychological reflection on part of the protagonist as he underwent deep, emotional pain that was revealed by little else than a corner twitch of his upper lip? 

Perhaps I missed my chance being the teenage apprentice in one of those stories where the protagonist is learning a supernatural ability from an adult, though I suspect Professor Lupin was neither of these. But it wasn't a shot in the dark, either. Criminals leave traces at crime scenes. So do fanboys in their writing. And, at the ripe age of thirteen, I wasn't just a Poe fanboy, I was endeavoring to prove that I was his freshly minted reincarnation. (I am, but more on that some other time). I already had The Raven memorized and was fantasizing about the day in which I would tattoo a few of those soul-wrenching lines upon my very own flesh in tribute to my only god. Professor Lupin was right. At the time of writing that manuscript, I was gorging on Poe. My writing screamed the fact.

I've ah ... well, I've since balanced out my tastes. The world also owes me a favor, seeing as how I kept that heaping 90k word pile of angst tucked away in my bedroom back at my childhood home. It did, however, provide some foundation for The Lupine Curse, which has hopefully evolved from 'pile of angst' into 'despondent eBook orphan left on the side of the road'. 

Journal Sketch

It was at that time in which I first heard this piece of advise: if you are in the midst of writing a book, go easy on reading other works of fiction, lest you muddle your inner voice. For writers that are aiming for a 50k manuscript and hammering it out in a month or two, or even a 100k in a few more, this seems like sound advice. However, the situation becomes more complex once we dip into deeper waters, it even becomes counterintuitive. This year, after I surpassed 100k words in my manuscript, I realized a few things:

Damn, I have been writing this book for awhile.
Damn, it's been some time since I read a good book.
Damn, that's because I'm only reading my book. 
Damn, this book is going to be longer than I anticipated.
Damn, this book is going to be much longer than I anticipated. 
And finally ... the words are blurring together. 

After that day with Professor Lupin, I followed his advice for years. With today's work being something of my fifth novel but the first one that I am going to push for traditional publishing, I had gotten used to the rhythm of immersing myself in my own inner voice, and after the marathon, enjoying the luxury of being humbled by authors far greater than myself. Unfortunately, writing is something of a daily addiction. Seeing as how I am not of the mind to divorce myself from the infinite insight offered from books, this creates an obvious conflict. 

The longest book I ever wrote before this one was 110k words. Taking a break here and there worked because, back then, I wasn't so committed. After all, the book took me three years to complete. I didn't mind halting the drafting process so that I could learn from the culture that I was hoping to contribute to.

These days, I am not willing to spend three years on drafting alone. And these days, I understand that I am not nearly brilliant enough to sacrifice the wealth of insight and beauty that other books offer. I refuse to believe that my originality will blossom to newfound heights in the instance that I isolate myself from the thoughts of others. Quite the contrary. After too long, it begins to suffer. Less arguably, life is simply too short. (That is, if you're one of those writers who actually enjoys reading.)

After hitting the 100k word milestone for my current work, writing short stories, poems, and other pieces, my mind became a circus (and not the good kind) of contrived personalities, voices, phrases, and dialogues of my own imaginings. But what was beginning to harrow me, was that it was utterly starved of other's. Being somewhat of a loner already, having mounds of my thoughts and writings building into a cacophony began to feel less like a professional stint of production and more of long sequence of drug abuse. 

I was starting to drown. The ink was filling my lungs and I began to panic. Production slowed, and deeper than I'd ever gone, it seemed, I dug into recesses of willpower and determination to see through some difficult days. Though I was getting stronger with inspiration as the exception rather than the rule, something was lacking. My general philosophy is to forge our fate rather than wait for a wistful feeling to nudge it along every now and then, but even that perspective comes with caveats. I like to keep inspiration as a whisper in the back of my head rather than an echo I am trying to remember. Not because I need inspiration to work, but because I know that, naturally, a healthy rhythm  often provides it. If inspiration is popping through the window less often, it's not because some literary Muse has decided to neglect me for another, it's because my eyes are too filled with cobwebs to see clearly. 

Even after my vacation abroad, which happened neatly in the middle of the book, I was closer to scratching my head than typing the keys. 

I had drugged and indulged myself on my own mania too intensely for too long. It was beginning to feel numbing rather than stimulating. I didn't need a break, I just had one.

What I needed was the excited voice of somebody else. Anybody. Their own madness. Their own originality. Their own brilliance. The energy of their creation coming to vivify the weakened spirit of my own. What I didn't need was an excuse to stop writing. What I needed was motivation to do it better.

Believing that our originality is going to be blotched by another author's is a tricky thought. It's tricky because art is a thief's realm anyways and we are all, whether we like it or not, reshaping what has already been passed through thousands of hands. Down to our daily interactions outside of writing, we are reinterpreting fodder into fiction. If we are to disallow ourselves the reading of another's work while drafting, then I suppose we should shun movies, series, and any media portraying fictitious interactions and dialogue, lest we unconsciously design our protagonist too closely to BBC's sociopathic and endearing Sherlock Holmes, or pick up on the witticisms between children in Stranger Things. (Don't you see how hip and young I am?)

The point is that inspiration is clay and we're the sculptors. But too long at the same piece and we get into the habit of using old tricks to do what we already did before. Reading is a way of taking in other techniques and perspectives we may not have considered, not for the sake of mimicking them, rather to add some heat to dwindling flames.

Instead of perceiving reading as an intrusion on our voice's self-actualization, think of it as reviewing a few recipes while you create your own, not for the purpose of mimicry, rather for insight, for inspiration, for clues in finding your own way. For instance, imagine that you are creating a character that is deeply, psychologically disturbed. The Tell-Tale Heart comes to mind. You remember how Poe shows his reader the horrific perspective of the protagonist rather than a narrator's more objective standpoint. We begin to wonder how we might do it differently, or take an emotion from his example and morph it into our own? Looking to craft a scene in which heart-stopping drama is sat next to humor? Observe what Zafón does in The Shadow of the Wind or The Prisoner of Heaven. Need a demonstration of modern surrealism, take a walk to Murakami's Kafka on the Shore

This isn't muddying the waters, it is enriching them. We take inspiration from our own lives. Why shouldn't we allow ourselves to do the same with fictitious ones? Again, we aren't taking it apart sentence for sentence, analyzing how a character is developed or a plot thickened; we aren't focusing on the turns that the author makes in their syntax. We can to learn to separate solution from technique, product from style, actualization from inspiration, and so we should certainly be confident enough, after a few years at least, to recognize when our voice is not our own. 

Despite having leapt for my dear sanity onto the other side of the fence, I still believe that if we read too much of one author immediately before writing stints, we prompt the blur of their voice with our own. Even still, if a paper cut has been sustained, the immediate solution is not lopping off the finger. There are remedies for this. Between reading and writing, give it a few hours, or days, depending on your schedule. Read multiple authors at once. And, most importantly, immerse yourself in your own work before writing the next portion.

Writing a lengthy novel efficiently often comes with demands on our social lives, daily routines, and comfort zones. It has the potential to effectively isolate the author from others. So let's not allow it that next step of isolating us from the creations of, quite possibly, the only other people on this planet who can truly empathize with the process. Who knows, they might even help us along the journey.