Our music is something that comes naturally to us. When we are writing, we don’t listen to what is popular at the moment. We write from our feelings and that is something very natural.
So said Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson in a 1987 interview with Dutch music magazine Sym Info. As happens very often, I compare things across art forms, and this quote got me wondering: when writing, does avoiding reading anything, new or otherwise, help retain the purity of what a writer writes?
I know that when I’m writing something while reading a particularly engrossing novel, the influence can’t help but seep onto the page of my work in progress. I cannot lie and claim that Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vicehas had no influence on the story I’m writing now. Both involve somewhat degenerate counterculture characters as protagonists, Pynchon’s as a Southern California hippie private detective, mine as a rock musician who doubles as a governmental agent/intelligence asset. Unlike Pynchon’s Doc Sportello who resists the invitations of easy money to work with the establishment, my character works for none other than the President of the United States, in large part owing his career to his willingness to use his other talents—he is a trained acrobat and illusionist in addition to a musician—to help the government root out corruption.
Now, I started writing this novel well before I read Inherent Vice—in fact, I had the ideafor it about two or three years ago before I ever put words to page. The similarity of the characters is purely coincidental, as is the overall tone of both books, and yet it’s impossible to deny that, since reading Mr. Pynchon’s novel, I have had to fight to not ape his style.
I have noticed this with other books as well. Whatever I’m reading has an effect on what I’m writing. It takes a conscious effort to remain true to my own voice and not just write a bad version of what I just read.
And yet, it’s also impossible to completely purge one of one’s influences. How does one find their own voice without trying out a bunch of styles, based on what one has imbibed, and seeing what works? Don’t most writers or artists in general begin by operating at the level of cliché—because clichés work—and slowly whittling away the facile imitations until an authentically unique voice can emerge?
* * *
The poison worked slowly, an insidious cancer on the incorruptible body. No time for niceties now. He tightened the tourniquet, ready to sever the offending limb if need be. After all, if one’s hand cause one to sin, was it not better to cut it off lest the whole body be cast into the fire? What about the mind?
Could one purge the mind of resistance as well?
It didn’t matter. The muscle memory ached. His hand flexed over the typewriter, dying to compose a scene, to bring it to life through nothing more than a few choice words. But they weren’t his words, were they?
No . . . they belonged to someone else. Another man, or a woman, perhaps. Someone whose essence he had drank deeply of, poisoning the well of his soul. It seemed to sweet at the time, a galactic draught from the proverbial land of milk and honey. But though it had gone down nicely it had turned bile-sour, spreading like a tumor, reproducing syntaxes and leaps of logic he would otherwise not be privy to.
There was someone else in his mind, talking, and their language was coming through his fingers. It had to go.
Slowly, he raised the blade . . .
* * *
Art is a conversation, a dialogue with what came before, using the past as something to build upon, elaborate, push further. Don’t some writers hint at a direction subsequent writers follow, tugging the thread to its logical conclusion? That doesn’t make the latter work necessarily derivative in the negative sense. After all, being influenced by another writer is natural. Nobody really creates in a vacuum, unaware of any other practitioner of an artform.
I think about punk and new wave musicians who consciously rejected the past in order to make music unfettered from any prior work. But that was a bit of a cop-out, a posture, a disingenuous position, especially when one actually listens to the music and realizes that it’s based on pre-existing artforms. Even the twelve-tone composers of the early 20th century had to know traditional Western music in order to deviate from it in new and exciting ways.
It’s like asking someone to explain to you what words are without using words. There are certain presuppositions when it comes to writing, and one of those is knowledge of a language, knowledge of story structure, and knowledge of how to write. Nobody can pen a great novel out of the blue if they’re, say, illiterate (let’s leave oral tradition aside for the purposes of this discussion). Very few can ignore traditional sentence structures and narrative arcs and still write something anybody wants to read.
We’re getting a little far afield here, considering our conversation started regarding the influence of other writing on one’s own writing. If you take the Alex Lifeson approach and don’t read anything new, that is, anything you haven’t read already or just nothing while you’re writing, you don’t somehow forget everything you had read before you started working on your own novel.
But does that make what you produce purer than if you were reading something in the midst of your own creative process? Can’t reading other writers’ works inspire you to do better on your own? Can’t it spark ideas you might not otherwise have had? You could learn new words or ways of composing a chapter, different turns of phrase, and other verbal constructions. You could build upon them, continuing the conversation, responding to it and adding another link to the great chain of the canon.
Because if you create, you are a part of it.
I’m not convinced there’s some sort of laudable purity inherent in refusing to read while writing. This isn’t to say that those who find it works best for them to abstain from reading anything are doing it wrong. It’s just that they’re not superior writers due to this fact.
Personally, I like to read when I can, even when I’m writing. And given that I am not a fast writer at all, if I didn’t, I’d go for months without reading anything, which is anathema to me. But what would advise is the self-awareness to know when you’re trying to write like somebody else, and when you’re drawing inspiration from someone else but maintaining your own voice. There is a difference between those two things, subtle though it may be.
Fusion is good. Creativity is often the result of things, both disparate and familiar, being combined in new ways nobody else has thought of before. But that doesn’t mean being a bad version of Thomas Pynchon. It means being a good version of you.
Check out where I try to be a good version of myself, inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others, in The Last Ancestor.