If you are a writer, then chances are you are also a reader. And if you’re not a reader, then you best become one, because your aspirations to write will be severely limited if you do not ingest and learn from the written works of others.
But reading others is also a doubled-edged sword, because when we read others we are reading final polished works, works that have often been years in the making, some a lifetime.
I often find myself giving my students advice that is completely contradictory: I tell all my students to read as much as they can, read stuff they love, and also read stuff that is outside their domain. Read high literature and read pulp. Read, and try to learn from what you read, try to determine for yourself, when a piece of writing works, the answer to the great question: How did this writer do that?
And then there is the pure contradiction, often delivered within minutes of the start of the first class: Forget everything you’ve read, for a while at least, and write freely.
Am I nuts? Possibly. But the tension in between contradictions is a place where writers and many other artists thrive.
When I advise students to forget everything they’ve ever read, it’s for this reason: They, like all writers, need to write freely, particularly in the early stages of a story. If I were to start writing a new story – a story so early in its life that I don’t even know it yet – that story would never have a chance if I stopped at the opening phrase, sentence, paragraph or page and compared it against everything I’ve ever read.
I’m not saying I’m the most well-read guy, but I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to read quite a few really good books and stories. And, dammit, mine don’t measure up!
I’d like my stories, short or long, to be as good as a book by Richard Flanagan or a story by Flannery O’Connor, but they aren’t. And in the earliest stages, my stories aren’t even stories yet, so to compare my first draft opening lines against those of great writers is a disservice to me, and to my work. I’ll choke the life out of the story with my own doubts.
So forget the greats, there aren’t any, not when you are drafting. When you are drafting, write freely, because in those precious minutes and hours you are the only great that will ever live.
Keep at it and tomorrow, or the next day, or someday soon, you will have a draft in your hands, and when you have a draft in hand and the story is starting to develop, you then need to muster all the learning you can draw from those great writers.
But only then. Until that moment, write freely, see what you can discover.
Silence that judging voice that wants to measure every phrase you scratch onto the page, tap onto the screen or trace in the sand. There will be time later to apply to your work anything you can draw from the books you have read.