Saturday, 17 May 2008

The devil's candy

Today I do not feel like a writer, so much. It's partly because my head is stuffed with an encroaching cold. It's partly because I wasn't able to write more than 700 words last week due to pressure of work. Mostly though I think it's because I haven't been reading enough recently.

The silliest piece of advice I ever read in a How to Write textbook (serves me right for investing in the capitalist chicanery that is the How to... publishing business) was Do Not Read. Books, said this lunatic, are the devil's candy! Beware the lure of reading when you ought to be writing! Possibly he was trying to counteract the usual advice which is Read: Anything and Everything! Or at least, selectively (but never less than exhaustively) within your chosen genre.

If you're going to give up reading you may as well give up writing. It behoves every writer to engage in, and understand, and enjoy their chosen craft. Don't give me that old argument about the danger of being unduly influenced by another author's style; it's part of our job to develop an ear for our own voice. Even if you write escapist fiction, you should do it from a perspective of active engagement. Personally, I'd rather write fiction which confronts reality head on. And this is what I like to read, be the methodology as fantastical as witchcraft. Give me a broad canvas and put a little poison in the picture, as Lucien Freud said.

I read to write, and vice versa. I think writers need to read more than anyone else. Reading refreshes our ear for words, it spins our expectations, throws our smug routine ever so slightly out of whack. Now I love my routine. But god knows it needs a shake-up every now and again. I've lost count of the number of times that I've reached deadlock within the confines of my own head (call it block, call it the numbing effect of the isolation that goes hand in fist with writing a story day in day out for months at a time) only to find it conquered by the reading of a critical line or two in someone else's work. Fiction, non-fiction, newspaper, glossy magazine - you name it. The pitch of my own writing frequency becomes so much static over time. I need to tune out and try another frequency, to get my bearings again.

So I'm going to take advantage of this house-bound, head-cold weekend and read. Iain Sinclair's collection of London vignettes, City of Disappearances (shout out to Ranald Graham: for so long my inspiration), and James Conan's City of Dark Hearts, and the transcript from the Japanese PoW camp where my grandparents and mother passed WWII.

Next week I'll return to the novel, with fresh eyes and ears.


Anne Brooke said...

I quite agree, Sarah! Writers should be people who love reading so damn much that they should can't stop. May as well ask someone to stop breathing!

Hugs about the cold though - I can send you some of my Lucozade if you like ...


Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Anne. Mmm, Lucozade! In the crinkly orange wrapper of childhood; the sound of "being made better".