Occasionally, you 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. It’s a fear that originality may be somehow diminished, or that a kind of helpless plagiarism may happen, which will then destroy their own literary integrity. Underlying this is perhaps an even deeper fear: that they may discover that those other writers’ books are actually vastly better, leading to a major paralysis in imagination and the feeling that as they’ve said it all anyway, why bother?
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 youngest, our musician son, loves to tell the story of the day he’d spent an entire morning practicing drums 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! I genuinely had not heard him at all. Equally, this immersion 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 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 collections of fairy tales, fantasy, mystery and adventure novels, comic books, everything I could lay my hands on. From early on, I wanted to emulate my favorite writers, and so wrote comic strips a la Tintin, my own fairy stories, school stories a la Blyton, all sorts of bits and pieces, totally influenced by what I read. Later, when, as a teenager, I got into poetry, I also tried my hand at writing in the styles and forms of those poets I loved best. I counted sonnet lines and tried my hand at shoe-horning verse into ancient bardic forms. I devoured Russian novels and Gothic novels and swashbuckling French novels and tried to create characters in their mold. And my writing was highly influenced, highly colored 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 practicing 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 vacuum. Indeed, like Nature, it abhors a vacuum. Instead, it comes straight out of that rich mix of individuality and influence.
Over to you: what are your thoughts on the influence of other people’s books?