There’s a time and there’s a place for uncertainty, and that time and that place is not between the covers of one’s own book. To crawl between the sheets of someone else’s book may be insightful, but my goodness, it’s also asking for trouble.
Yes, you can find real gems in others’ works. But you can also find fool’s gold. What shimmers in the grasp of another’s mastery and in parallel with their own story may be feeble and phony in yours.
Since I started writing, I read differently. Gone are the days when I read purely organically. I’d leap from Primo Levi’s Periodic Table (on the Holocaust in Europe), to Anthony Hochschild’s searing King Leopold’s Ghost (on Belgian atrocities in the Congo, the truth behind Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), to Antije Krog’s heart-rending Country of My Skull (on the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa), and from there into a romp of great African literature, and on and on.
Now I’m reading to learn. To learn technique and craft. To figure out how to make my own work live.
I grabbed an Agatha Christie to read “reveals” through dialogue. Decided against her style. That same day, Orson Scott Card’s Magic Street fell into my lap. I wanted to see how he inserted fantasy into a real world, and how he managed to make a book with a child protagonist somehow escape labeling as such. That guy wields some real skill with dialogue. I could learn from him.
Then I grabbed the Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas, honestly just coz I was due a fun read. From her I took a renewed respect for strongly crafted POVs, the use of character tags, and her succinct descriptions of place. She revealed emotions without having to state them. I liked what I saw and realized how I could improve my own work.
As you know, today I finished off the Shadow of the Wind. Holy moly. Now he hit me hard in the solar plexus. I can’t deny it, there’s something about his style that is my idealized style. It’s the style I wished to write in all those years when I started and didn’t get past page 12 or 28.
Looking back, part of the reason I stopped every time I started was that I never bothered to add a plot to my tales. I for some reason thought I didn’t have a plot in me. Now I love plot, thankfully.
My current novel started the day I put down a fashionable novel which I quite disliked and which I reckoned deserved Dorothy Parker’s deliciously tart review of years gone by:
This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
“I could do better,” I groused. And then, rather than just closing my eyes and continuing to live happily ever after as a reader, I answered myself. (Which goes to show the art of the monologue is not over, at least when I’m feeling cantankerous.)
“Prove it,” I said to myself. Out loud.
And you know me with a challenge. The gauntlet had been thrown. Defiling the earth between us. I had to act. To respond to this cocky upstart. And so I did.
I flounced to my computer, turned it on, and sat there blankly, feeling like a bit of a goof. This was not a suitable response to the gauntlet, so I went through my folder of premises (fop, a poor acronym) and actually found one shimmering and ready for the light of day. I plucked it, set it on a blank page, and in a flurry of typing, began.
It was a seminal day, in that it was the birth of my book. However, it would be a month before I wrote anything worth keeping. And that’s being generous.
I had decided not to fall into my previous pattern, in which I went for prose over story. In which I tried to call on the ghosts of brilliant lyricists in my work. No summoning Neruda, Dante, Dostoevsky, Kazantzakis. No summoning anyone. No cleaving to giants, to ideals outside of myself. I was going to reach in. I was going to have fun. I was purely going to focus on storytelling. I was going to tell a story I wanted to hear. And amazingly, that’s just what happened.
It was incredible. Images I’d had since my youth started appearing in the story. Names that had had meaning years gone by were put in, and new names whose meanings I had yet to decipher. Suddenly, indeed, I had a story developing. And I wasn’t stopping on page 24, stuck and staring into space, slowly dwindling into procrastination. I was committed, I wasn’t going anywhere without finishing this story, I was enjoying the story and finally treating writing as a craft to be learned, like a language, like any other thing worth doing. I was going to fight through the bramble and cut myself against that rock that is experience. And so it was.
And then there was today. And Zafon.
Here I am, on page 291, facing that old enemy of mine. The beautiful lyricism of an author whose writing I admire so much I find myself again taken aback and wondering… Could I write something like that?
I don’t want to stand and wonder. I don’t want to want something that is going to stymie me and fill my limbs with lead and my head with clouds.
And also, truly, this story wouldn’t suit that style. Ignore his style, ignore it, ignore it. Let Gabriel Garcia Marquez be Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Let Goethe be Goethe. Let Shakespeare be Shakespeare. And for the love of all that’s ordinary and wonderful, let Carlos Ruiz Zafon be himself too. And as for me–just be me.
Oh lord. The pain of reading great writing when you’re trying to write.
I’m not going to write a new Professor Trelawney, and I’m not going to write a rollicking Fermin, nor will a bonny and wily Oliver Twist plop from my pen, much less my anxious keyboard. So stop thinking on them and write your own screamin’ story.
It is hard. Oh, to be done with the final draft so that the job of making things shape up in the second draft could already be upon me.
Oh, oh, oh. Let me not touch another fiery magnet of a book again till I can take it without falling over my old stumbling block! Or maybe, just maybe, I need this odd challenge. Maybe.
You know, in English we say: “I need this like I need a hole in my head.”
The Russians are smarter. They know we already have several holes in our head, and quite clearly we do need them for balance and to breathe. Their saying is more to the point, I think.
“I need this like I need a tooth in my ass.”