Wednesday, July 31, 2013

{Guest Post} Against Reading by Emily Croy Barker, Author of THE THINKING WOMAN'S GUIDE TO REAL MAGIC

Beginning writers are usually advised to read, read, read as much as you can. Literary classics, usually: Tolstoy, Melville, Bellow, Cheever, Bronte, Faulkner - just to pick some heavyweights at random. I think that's excellent advice. Right now, though, I want to make the case for not reading.

Normally, I have a novel going at all times - and when I'm getting to the end of one, I usually make sure that there's another novel tucked into my bag, ready for me. Call it an addiction if you will. I have long ago accepted that I am powerless over this particular compulsion.

But when I was writing the first draft of The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic - which took more than three years - I drastically changed my reading habits. I gave up novels almost completely. There were some exceptions: I couldn't resist The Historian or Perdido Street Station or the last couple of Harry Potter novels, and I remember rereading Special Topics in Calamity Physics during a long train ride. Overall, though, my normal novel consumption rate, which probably hovers around a book a week, dropped to maybe ten per year.

It was painful, frankly. Why did I do this? A couple of reasons. First, I frankly didn't want to be intimidated by how much better other, published writers were. Also, I wanted to avoid imitating another writer's voice or fantasy world. I know very well that there's nothing truly original under the sun. Every book ever written - except for the very first one, I suppose - is in dialogue with its predecessors, and it wasn't as though I could forget the novels I'd already read. But I could at least give my creativity a little more room to wander.

Most importantly, however, I wanted to goad myself to write. If I could happily lose myself in someone else's novel - even during my subway ride or some other time when I couldn't write - I'd have less incentive to lose myself in writing my novel. Reading and writing are not so far apart when it comes to the role of the imagination.

And yet I still needed something to read on the subway. So I turned to reading novels in French. I don't speak French that well, and I read at a glacial pace - it took me six months to get through The Count of Monte Cristo (totally worth it, by the way!). But my ineptitude turned out to be a good thing. Reading in French was a great exercise for me as a writer, because I had to go slow and pay very close attention to language, and I was also essentially writing the novel, line by line, as I translated it mentally into English.

I finished the first draft of my novel in May 2009 - and the next time I went into a bookstore, it was like going into a bakery after being on a diet for years. Am I advocating that writers give up reading novels for the rest of their lives and learn a foreign language to boot? Not at all. But sometimes, when you really need to concentrate on doing your own work, it's a good think to turn down the volume on all the distractions, even the best ones.

*A copy of the guest post was provided through the publisher.

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