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Reading While Writing

Do you read other writers’ fiction while you’re working on your own?

This topic has come up a number of times on conference panels I’ve either attended or been on, and the general response seems overwhelmingly to favor: no. (Or: NO!!!)

The usual justification I hear is that having another author’s voice in your head gets in the way of clearly hearing your own.

My response to that has usually been that I manage to palette-cleanse all intrusive voices by going over whatever I’ve written the day before and revising it before starting anything new.

But I’ve just finished my most recent novel over Christmas vacation in Norway, and had the time as well (given long nights and inclement weather) to read three other books, two novels and one combat memoir. Not only did they help stimulate my brain in terms of language, pacing, concept, and more, they encouraged me to higher levels of execution, more demanding self-scrutiny, for the three books I picked were by writers I admire, whose skill and technique far outpace my own, and whose work arguably puts mine in the shade.

Why would I do that to myself? Would you?

As I’ve said more than once here within the hallowed walls of Writer Unboxed—i.e., at the risk of repeating myself again—I have always loved this quote from Saul Bellow:

“Writers are readers inspired to emulation.”

I don’t want to restrict that inspiration to the time between novels. Especially since I seldom have any real downtime between novels. Case in point: I’ve already begun researching and plotting out the next.

With all the research we need to do—plus other people’s manuscripts for those of us who blurb, review, teach, or edit as well—when is there time to read fiction for “mere” inspiration (let alone pleasure)?

“Writers are readers inspired to emulation.” –Saul Bellow

The three books I chose were books I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and finally put my mental foot down and decided: Time’s up. Now or never.

I’m glad I did, because they all taught me things that came in handy.

From Jess Walters (The Financial Lives of the Poets), I learned to continue returning to a powerful image in new ways, for it creates thematic unity, and the echoes instantly conjure meaning.

For example, the main character/narrator stops by a local public school to see how his two young sons might manage there, given the family’s coming fall from financial grace. What he witnesses is two older kids leading a younger, smaller kid to the fence and beating him mercilessly.

When the narrator tries to intervene, not only do the two older kids trash-talk him, the younger one does as well. The boy would rather get the snot kicked out of him than accept the shame of needing to be rescued—worse, being seen as a snitch for getting the other two boys in trouble.

The narrator keeps returning to this image in new ways over the next 200 pages or so, linking new insights to this original experience, deepening the reader’s understanding of it.

Flaubert’s Parrot, by Julian Barnes, bears a certain resemblance to my book in that its “current-day” storyline echoes one in the past, in this case the great author’s life and career, specifically his most famous novel, Madame Bovary.

Time and again I was struck by the lovingly obsessive research that went into this book, resulting in dozens of odd, fascinating details (about Flaubert’s disbelief in human progress and particular disdain for democracy; his love-hate relationship with travel; his tempestuous long-term affair the sexually liberated poet Louise Colet, etc.)

More than that, however, I just marveled at the deft prose, the great turns of phrase, the wit, the insight.

What makes us want to know the worst [about someone]? Is it that we tire of preferring to know the best? Does curiosity always hurdle self-interest? Or is it, more simply, that wanting to know the worst is love’s favourite perversion?

Finally, since four of my characters are combats vets, I benefitted greatly from revisiting Michael Herr’s Dispatches, quite possibly the greatest, and certainly one of the most surreal and disturbing accounts of men at war you will ever encounter.

I marveled at the deft prose, the great turns of phrase, the wit, the insight.

It was re-immersion into that mindset, particularly the cocksure bravado veiling inescapable terror; the superstitious regard for death and the dead; the sneaky, humiliating betrayals of a fallible body; all wrapped in a unique blend of compassion, objectivity, and black humor (“clean information”), that brought me into a place where I thought I could deal with my vets insightfully.

It was like a walk through a colony of stroke victims, a thousand men on a cold rainy airfield after too much of something I’d never really know, “a way you’ll never be,” dirt and blood and torn fatigues, eyes that poured out a steady charge of wasted horror.

Overall, the benefit of reading while writing is that the part of my brain receptive to fiction shares a borderland with the one challenged to create it. Sure, I could have felt intimidated, but I chose instead to raise my game.

Is my novel equal to these three books I admire? Trick question—that’s not for me to judge. If it were, I would say no—not out of modesty, but honesty. Besides, an author never experiences his own work the same way he experiences someone else’s—specifically, he knows everything that’s been left out, which the reader doesn’t and can’t—and that’s the real bright dividing line between reading and writing.

I am not a believer in the old saw we write for ourselves. I believe we write for others, and sometimes it helps to have a specific reader or readers in mind.

The actor Joseph Chaikin never went onstage without imagining that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was in the audience.

With these three authors so clearly present in my mind, I began to write as though they were my intended readers. And I think it helped me write a better book, at least in the home stretch. When I go back for my final review, I’ll need to make sure that influence is consistent.

Do you read fiction while you’re writing it? If not, why not?

If so, how do you choose what to read? How do you counter the risk of imitation? How do you keep from feeling intimidated?

Do you write with a specific reader or readers in mind? How does that work for you?




About David Corbett [1]

David Corbett [2] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [3], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.