Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Reading while writing

with 2 comments

Norman Mailer

When Norman Mailer was working on The Naked and the Dead, still in his early twenties, he fell back on a trick that I suspect most novelists have utilized at one time or another. Here how he described it to his biographer Peter Manso:

I had four books on my desk all the time I was writing: Anna Karenina, Of Time and the River, U.S.A., and Studs Lonigan. And whenever I wanted to get in the mood to write I’d read one of them. The atmosphere of The Naked and the Dead, the overspirit, is Tolstoyan; the rococo comes out of Dos Passos; the fundamental, slogging style from Farrell; and the occasional overreach descriptions from Wolfe.

I haven’t looked into this in any systematic way, but I have a feeling that a lot of writers do much the same thing—they select a book by another author whom they admire, and when they start the day’s work, or feel their inspiration starting to flag, they read a few pages of it. If you’re like me, you try to move straight from the last sentence of your chosen model to your own writing, as if to carry over some of that lingering magic. And if you’re lucky, the push it provides will get you through another hour or so of work, at which point you do it again.

I’ve followed this routine ever since I started writing seriously, and it isn’t hard to figure out why it helps. One of the hardest things about writing is starting again after a break, and reading someone else’s pages has the same effect as the advice, often given to young writers, as retyping a paragraph of your work from the day before: like the running start before the long jump, it gives you just enough momentum to carry you past the hardest part. I’ve also developed a set of rather complicated rules about what I can and can’t allow myself to read while working. It needs to be something originally composed in English, since even the best translations lose something of the vitality of a novel in one’s native language. (Years ago, I saw one of Susan Sontag’s early novels described as being written in “translator’s prose,” and I’ve never forgotten it.) It has to be the work of a master stylist, but not so overwhelming or distinctive that the tics begin to overwhelm your own voice: I still vividly remember writing a few pages of a novel shortly after reading some Nabokov, and being humiliated when I went back to read the result the next day. I stay away from such writers for much the same reason that I avoid listening to music when I write these days. It’s all too easy to confuse the emotional effects produced by proximity to another work of art with the virtues of the writing itself. When you’re reading in parallel, you want a writer who bears you forward on the wave of his or her style without drowning you in it.

Ian McEwan

This also means that there are books that I can’t allow myself to read when I’m writing, out of fear that I’ll be contaminated by their influence, for better or for worse. Obviously, I avoid bad writers, but I also steer clear of great writers whom I’m afraid will infect my style. In practice, because I’m nearly always writing something, this means that I’ve avoided certain books for years. It took me a long time to read Cloud Atlas, for instance, because it seemed like exactly the kind of overwhelming stylistic experiment that could only have a damaging impact. Mailer makes a similar point:

I was very careful not to read things that would demoralize me. I knew that instinctively. There’s a navigator in us—I really do believe that—and I think this navigator knew I wanted to be a writer and had an absolute sense of what was good for me and what wasn’t. If somebody had said, “Go read Proust,” I’d say, “No, not now.”

Or as the great Sherlockian scholar Christopher Morley noted: “There is no harm in reading any number of unimportant books for pastime, but the significant books must be taken cautiously. You don’t want them to get in the way of what might perhaps be growing and brooding in yourself, taking its own time.

And this search for books in English that have a great style, but not too much of it, has led to some curious patterns in my reading life. Usually, when I’m working on something and need a helping hand to get me over the rough patches, I go with Ian McEwan. I’m not sure that I’d describe him as my favorite living writer, but he’s arguably the one whose clean, lucid, observant prose comes closest to the ideal that I’d like to see in my own work. You can’t really go wrong with an imitation of McEwan, whereas there are other writers in the same vein, like Updike, who are more likely to lead you astray. With McEwan, at worst, you’ll end up with something boring, but it probably won’t be outright embarrassing. (It reminds me a little of what T.S. Eliot once said along similar lines: “If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.”) McEwan is the closest I’ve found to a foolproof choice, which is why I’m currently reading The Children Act, a few pages at a time, while I’m working up a new short story. James Salter and J.M. Coetzee are two other good options, and if I’m really stuck for inspiration, I’ll often fall back on an old favorite like Deliverance by James Dickey, or even Mailer himself, for early drafts when I’m pretty sure that I’ll have a chance to pare away any excesses of style. Every writer eventually develops his or her own personal list, and there aren’t any wrong answers. You just listen to your navigator. And maybe you don’t read Nabokov.

2 Responses

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  1. This is a really interesting post and one that touches on an area that I have struggled with since I started writing. I like the idea of a navigator, and I think I’ve got one, I just need to make sure I listen.

    I’m going to think more strategically about what I read from now on. Thanks for posting.

    Martin

    November 5, 2016 at 3:33 am

  2. @Martin: Glad it helps!

    nevalalee

    November 6, 2016 at 9:41 am


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