QED

The writing life: 3

Other people’s books 

You sometimes hear writers say they never read the work of other authors, especially writing in the same genre as they are, and especially if they’re currently in the process of writing a book themselves. The reason given is usually that they are afraid of being influenced, whether consciously or unconsciously, by the other writer’s work. There’s a kind of fear that originality may be somehow diminished, and that your pristine work may be contaminated, as it were, by foreign authorial bacteria, or that a kind of helpless plagiarism may happen, which will then destroy your own literary integrity. Underlying this is a deeper fear: that you may discover that those other writers’ books are actually vastly better than yours, leading to a major paralysis in imagination and the feeling that as they’ve said it all anyway, why bother? 

It’s a fear that is common in modern times—writers in Elizabethan times, for instance, rarely seemed to harbour such insecurities. And I understand those feelings—the writing life is quite often competitive, stressful, and prey to many fancies and fears–but I don’t share them. Partly, it’s because of the way I write: a process of complete and utter immersion. When I’m writing, I’m completely in the story, nothing else figures or intrudes, I’m away with the fairies. It quite blanks out anything going on around me–to the great frustration—and delight– of my children when they were growing up. My daughter says she could have asked for a huge rise in pocket money when I was in the middle of writing and I’d have said, Yes, dear, whatever you want, vaguely; and my drummer son loves to tell the story of the day he’d spent an entire morning practising loudly upstairs, and when he came down for lunch, and I emerged blinking from my work, I asked him brightly what he’d been doing all morning! Equally, though, it seems to blank out what I’ve been reading—perhaps because writing is such a different process to reading, perhaps because that’s the ‘safety switch’ that clicks on in my mind when I start to write. 

But it’s only partly my experience of writing itself which makes me feel that those common writers’ fears are not only unfounded, but actually dangerous. Because how on earth can a writer not be a reader too? Though they are so different, the two things go together. Wide and frequent reading of other people’s work leads to the enrichment of a writer’s mental furniture, the deepening of their emotional range, the texturing of their intellectual potential. Whether that be classic authors or modern ones, reading what other people have written, thinking about it, engaging with it, makes all the difference to the strength and power of your own writing. An author without ”influence”–if such a mythical beast can truly exist– would write merely hollow, navel-gazing books which would most likely fail to click with readers.  

I can’t begin to estimate just how important other writers’ influence has been, and is, to me. From the very beginning, when as a non-English-speaking migrant child newly arrived in Australia, I was introduced to English-language children’s books, I was off and away on an extraordinary journey through the world of literature. I devoured books as fast as I could get them off the library shelves. I read in both English and in my native language, French, racing through CS Lewis, Herge (Tintin books) ,Tove Jannsson, Leon Garfield, Alexandre Dumas, Roger Lancelyn Green, Jean de Brunhoff (Babar), Patricia Wrightson, Philippa Pearce, Louise May Alcott, Jules Verne, Enid Blyton, and lots lots lots more. From early on, I wanted to emulate my favourite writers, and wrote little comic strips a la Tintin, fairy stories, school stories, all sorts of bits and pieces, totally influenced by what I read. Later, when, as a teenager, I got into poetry and plays, I also tried my hand at writing in the styles and forms of those poets and playwrights I loved best: Shakespeare, Yeats, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Tennessee Williams, William Blake, Robert Browning, and so on and on. I counted sonnet lines and tried my hand at shoe-horning verse into ancient bardic forms, tried to write snappy dialogue and tragic scenes. I devoured Russian novels and Gothic novels and swashbuckling French novels and tried to create characters in their mould. And my writing was highly influenced, highly coloured by what I’d read. But not only was I enriching my mental furniture by reading, I don’t think I could have found a better way of practising to become a writer. Challenging and extending myself, not staying within the narrow world of home-school-home that I lived in as a kid but roaming the wide worlds of my, and other people’s imaginations. 

And so, unconsciously, as I grew up, I came to understand a very important and liberating thing, which has stood me in good stead all my writing life. And it’s this. Voice, which is really where a writer’s originality lies, does not exist in a vaccum. Indeed, like Nature, it abhors a vacuum. Instead, it comes straight out of that rich mix of individuality and influence.

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