Silk’s Post #14 — I can’t write and read at the same time.
This is different from the jokey problem of walking while chewing gum. It’s not that I can’t multi-task, god knows. That’s all I do is multi-task. In fact I think the only thing I do without the distraction of three or four other balls in the air is sleep.
No, my problem is: I mimic.
When I read a good action thriller with lots of short, punchy, three-word sentences, I begin to write short, punchy, three-word sentences. When I read literature with long complex sentences and five dollar words, I start writing unstoppable sentences that turn into paragraphs with a hundred commas. When I read Ian Rankin, I begin to write as though I speak with a Scottish accent, and when I read Bill Bryson I suddenly seem to sound funnier — and slightly, if awkwardly, British. (I only wish I could mimic Martin Cruz Smith).
You see my dilemma?
Writers – and the large galaxy of people who seem to make a pretty good living coaching writers on how to write – are always talking about how important it is to read, read, read if you want to write, write, write. Don’t any of them have my monkey-see-monkey-do problem?
But if I admit it (and you know that’s a writer’s way of warning you they’re about to admit something), I have a deeper problem with reading while I’m writing. It all sounds so much better than my own work. Probably not all of it really is better, but there it is in ink, on a page – and there’s my work in pixels, on a screen. Ink gives a certain je ne sais quoi to writing. A certain intimidation factor. For one thing, it’s no longer deletable, and that seems to add to its substance and legitimacy.
This second reading problem, however, is pretty clearly a psychological one. Writer’s self doubt. The remedy for it would seem to be getting published (though I suspect that from time to time even some well-respected, published authors still wrestle with the dark conviction that they’re actually frauds and it’s only a matter of time before they’re found out).
But back to mimicry.
Agents are always going on about how they’re looking for a fresh voice. By that, I’m quite sure they do not mean writers who’ve cleverly learned how to sound like other writers. (On the other hand, watch how a surprise runaway bestseller will send them scrambling to sign up exactly that … the next J.K. Rowling, for instance).
So what is “voice” exactly? This post is definitely in my voice. You can probably hear me speaking it, see the expressions on my face, and “read” my body language. The eye rolls. The resigned grins. The hand-wringing and the head wagging. The devilish sparkle in my eye. I actually find it easy to project my “voice” when I’m the first-person “protagonist” in expository non-fiction. I’ve been practising it for a long time as a writer in the commercial marketplace.
But applying this to fiction is a very different challenge. No doubt, there’s a little bit of the author in every memorable protagonist, but too much of the author on the page – as we’ve all been warned in the strongest possible terms – is one of the cardinal sins in fiction. “Author intrusion!” must be second only to “cliché alert!” as an often seen, and always dreaded, margin note.
Joe amused and intrigued us with his post about “becoming a 16-year-old girl” so he could write in the voice of his protagonist. And here’s where mimicry can be a boon. Observe, listen and learn from real life, and if you’re a good mimic you can become a character who is nothing like the real you. If you’re really empathic, you can begin to see the world through your character’s eyes and think with your character’s brain.
So this mimicry thing is actually a pretty useful skill. In the right circumstances.
The problem, for me anyway, comes when I’m reading another author and being sucked into the head of someone else’s protagonist while trying to write from the viewpoint of my own hero. It’s like trying to listen to two pieces of music at the same time. I lose my beat. And I’m guessing that when Joe was writing his YA fantasy, he didn’t have a couple of Jack Reacher thrillers on his bedside table for his nighttime reading.
I have heard at least one well-known author claim to eschew reading while writing, to keep the “voice pollution” out of his head. The question then becomes: when do you read if you’re writing all the time?
An interesting dilemma, this monkey-see-monkey-do trap. Can you read and write at the same time? If not, how do you deal with it?