BY MIKE JOHNSON
Note: this was written to be a companion piece to my partner Leila’s reflection on our library makeover. Her blog piece is much superior to mine. You can read it here.
Since we all want to be so amazingly original, we often underestimate and undervalue the role that our reading plays in our writing. Writers come in all shapes and sizes, thank goodness, but one thing they all have in common is that they are readers. What we soak up from other writers is often largely unconscious.
Whenever you write a sentence you evoke some kind of model for how sentences are written, which is how you have been taught to write. The more you read, the more models you have in your unconscious. Yes, you can do this (or that) with language because you have seen another writer do it. Remember, language is not natural, it is constructed. Writing that looks natural and easy is often the most highly wrought of all. Try it and find out for yourself.
Not only that, but your view of the world is shaped by the themes and visions of the writers you love and admire. Your experience shapes who you are, and your reading is an intrinsic part of your experience – that is why it’s so wonderful.
This was brought home to me recently when we gave our library room at home a makeover, pulling the books off the shelves and painting them (the shelves! Sentences can be tricky, eh?). Look at all those SF novels I used to read as an insomniac teenage boy. Not just the Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clark, but those lesser writers we have forgotten. Robert Silverberg, Bob Shaw, and the women who tried to bring a feminist perspective to this essentially boy-lit: Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Junior.
As I dusted off these old books, it struck me how important they were for my development as a writer, and as a person. The sort of person who can recognise the 21st Century as a version of one of those stories that I read as a boy. It’s a bit of a joke among us SF aficionados that we are all trapped in a Philip K Dick story with no signs of escape.
Good fiction extends our sympathies, and by doing so makes us more aware people, which in turn helps shape our world view – and as writers, presents us with challenges. Can we create a symphony of antithetical voices the way Dostoevsky does? Can we create characters with the amazing empathy with nature that Barbara Kingsolver’s character have? Can we plot a story like Agatha Christie or dig into the substance of thought and feeling the way Virginia Wolf does? Can we scare a reader as Edgar Allen Poe does, or have us fall in love with some quirky Mr Pickwick like the impossibly sentimental Dickens?
Yes, we can do all those things and more, if our work requires it. The models are there. Be not afraid to soak up influences wherever you can find them; be not afraid to imitate, for, when it comes to language, it’s by imitation that we learn.
You want to have a distinctive and original voice? And think there is some short cut to get there? That a distinctive and original voice will just miraculously manifest when you put pen to paper or your fingers hover over that keyboard? If that were the case, the less you read the more unique your voice would be! Humbug! All language is intertextual by nature. Embrace that intertextuality and celebrate it in your work.
And read like crazy. If you see a writer doing something wonderful and astonishing, you can do it to. Writer see writer do.
That’s why I keep all these old books around in the library, books I’m unlikely to read again. Books I love to dust off and look fondly at the covers, recalling the reading experience. Each one of them is a small piece of me.