How often is the fledgling writer told to “read everything” if they want to write well?
The inference is that we should read presumably for the sake of understanding good and bad writing, how to do it (or avoid it), and to know what has already been written so as not to waste our time doing what has been done before. Few of our teachers and mentors really take the time to explain the concept further, however, sending us instead to wander among the monoliths of literature with a magnifying glass and a dictionary, never realizing that, to the novice writer, the letters in those infamous tomes are seven feet tall, each word ten yards wide. And thus (dis)armed we proceed to the next easiest thing we can think of in the face of a vague and overwhelming concept: we imitate what we see.
One reason we imitate, of course, is out of respect and admiration for a favorite writer (Raymond Carver launched thousands of imitators in his day). This is a natural desire, and not a bad way to practice the craft in private, but for professional publication there’s no more value in it than there is in the next reason we imitate: because we think that copying the style of those already in print improves our own chances for publication. It’s a reasonable assumption – obviously the editor of that publication liked what they saw the first time – but this behavior slows the development of the writer’s own voice, possibly forever. Finally, maybe more common than all of the above, is the simple fact that it is far easier for our species to copy what has already been done than to come up with something unique on our own.
Everything has been done, we are told. There is nothing new under the sun.
Yet, frequently something new does appear. That old bug-a-boo of style shows up, again and again, in fresh new ways, re-creating the ancient stories of Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Joe-anonymous and his special story, old tales that have never been told quite this way. And so the novice sees . . . yes! . . . this is my future, and they rip-off the latest thing, possibly even getting published once before the market is flooded with other copycats.
There is, however, a more useful purpose for reading which is much more valuable than imitation. By reading widely the young writer can tap into and collect the energy of those various pieces, can come to understand the vortex of creativity being generated on the shoulders of dozens of original voices. The purpose here is to get connected with the current of whatever it is that’s powering the genre. By feeling this energy the new writer becomes free to say what has not been said, in ways that have not been expressed in the writing they have witnessed. These things have not been expressed because they are the unique flavorings that the young writer brings with themselves, having learned where their own voice fits in the gaps of a multitude of other voices.
Of course, so much about finding that unique voice rests on a number of other things we have already discussed: writing a million words, reading broadly, writing regularly. As the writer evolves through these phases of growth the practice of creating first drafts in accordance with Natalie Goldberg’s basic rules becomes more and more valuable not only for getting the work done, but for finding that unique voice. Recall that Goldberg tells us, among several things, to 1) keep our hand moving, 2) don’t think, and 3) be specific in our details. By combining these practices with our experience of reading, we will indeed find at least a glimmer of our own voice starting to appear. From their we will revise and revise until that voice comes through. With enough work the diligent writer stands a very good chance of breaking through.
Within the attentive mind all of those voices, those writing styles and stories, become a sort of map for finding the place where one’s own work belongs. When all of these elements are combined the young writer builds inertia and this inertia creates a kind of buffer on which the writer is carried over the rocky landscape of the literary terrain. By studying the opening paragraph of a number of works the writer can find a new paradigm for her own opening. The same can be said for finding one’s way through the middle of a story, for handling difficult plot concepts, pieces of description, and effective, stunning endings.
Admiring another writer’s style is well and good for appreciating literature overall, and for practicing style and voice as part of learning. After that the serious writer must leave behind the desire to imitate. With so many voices vying to be heard across an ocean of media outlets it is as important as ever to foster a unique style. By reading widely the novice writer may hear the singular timbre of their own voice among the chorus, may find the inertia to carry them into the fray, and thus join in the conversation as a peer once and for all.