May 15, 2010

Dangerously contagious writing.

What writers should a good writer avoid getting tainted by?

The list discussed at the link is all about protecting the delicate sensibilities of novelists. To write, you need a good "ear." (Sorry, that's a metaphor. And a penchant for metaphors is something you might pick up from reading "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy.) The problem with reading is that it puts some author's way of saying things in the place in your mind that would otherwise be occupied by the way real human beings speak.

I think you can immunize yourself from the disease of overly influential writers by getting out there in the world listening to people and doing some talking yourself. Have conversations. Listen to other people and watch how they interact with you when you speak. Develop your voice in real life. Even if you don't end up with a good ear and an original writing style, you will have lived and you'll have your friends. Maybe even some stories to tell.

So put down that book...



... and go parading before it's too late.

And stop looking so scornful, it's twisting your face.

23 comments:

PatCA said...

You have to watch out for Lorrie Moore. Her writing is so seemingly effortless it almost hides its penetrating truths. "You can do this too!" Yes, I love her writing but, no, you can't do this too.

I came to this conclusion after seeing her sitting amidst a writing group of women, all of them wearing t-shirts with her face on them. She looked uneasy.

rhhardin said...

I don't read anything without airplanes in it.

William said...

To some extent this is a circular argument. You are drawn to some writers the way you are drawn to certain movie stars. George Orwell and Steve McQueen are your ideal self made visible. We all imitate who we want to be.

Synova said...

"And stop looking so scornful, it's twisting your face."

LOL.

How did you know I was twisting my face?

traditionalguy said...

I guess they forgot to warn about Charles Dickens since no one reads him anymore. That guy could write circles around today's popular authors.

PatCA said...

You should read A Fine Balance, tradguy. Dickensian, set in India.

Ann Althouse said...

"She looked uneasy."

And was there some other time when you saw her and she didn't look uneasy?

Ann Althouse said...

"That guy could write circles around today's popular authors."

A good approach when you are paid by the word.

Big Mike said...

When I first started technical writing I consciously set out to make my style like Donald Knuth in The Art of Computer Programming. (If you're a mathematician or computer scientist, you'll get the reference. If not, you'll probably want to take my word for it that his style is unique.)

I never got there, but on the way I found my own voice.

Patrick said...

When I was a teenager I caught a really bad bout of Michener, which although mostly healed has, I think, permanently scarred my comma usage and sentence length. It still flairs up now and then.

I also was very susceptible to Londonitis, especially after reading Jack's short stories.

Now, I read a lot of complex theology and while my sentence structure is mostly better, I seemed to have caught a serious case of not making any sense.

edutcher said...

Of the list, I only read Kerouac and Hemigway - and Ernie never wowed me, but I can see how the short, choppy sentences thing could get addictive.

William said...

To some extent this is a circular argument. You are drawn to some writers the way you are drawn to certain movie stars. George Orwell and Steve McQueen are your ideal self made visible.

Steve McQueasy??? You must be joking.

traditionalguy said...

I guess they forgot to warn about Charles Dickens since no one reads him anymore. That guy could write circles around today's popular authors.

Tolstoy, I can see, but Chuck? He's so sentimental, I don't think anyone's emulated him since the world discovered Stephen Crane.

GMay said...

Isn't this sort of like Bukowski's advice to younger writers?

I'm going off fuzzy memories here, but it was pretty much something like "stop talking about writing and go out and live life".

PatCA said...

That's true, Lorrie Moore appears sort of inherently anxious. :)

traditionalguy said...

@ Patrick...I had not thought of Michener. To me he was the most readable writer since WWII. Yet sentimental Charley Dickens most excellent characters would become giants as his serial Chapters came out every week like the old Zorro serial films. And who remembers a Stephen Crane character anyway?

edutcher said...

A lot of people remember his stories, so he must have some good characters.

William said...

I suppose you could say that Verdi is sentimental, but the melodies soar far above the libretto. Ditto with Dickens. He has long stretches of grand writing that fly above the corniness of the plot. They say that Dickens wrote pro- humanity propaganda, but he also exists in a dimension far above prose. Writers don't imitate him for the same reason daredevils don't imitate Evil Kneivel's canyon jumps.

Pastafarian said...

I'd guess that Hemingway would be the classic example; but his concision would probably be something most writers should aspire to.

How about HP Lovecraft? Read too much of that, and you'll end up describing any book as an "ancient and obscene tome", any basement as a "hoary, decrepit, nitre-encrusted catacomb", etc.

David said...

That's a pretty good list at the link, but Maya Angelou has to be at the top of any list.

Someone you should emulate: Francine Prose (who is on to Maya Angelou too.)

Will Cate said...

Thanks for posting the clip. A Hard Day's Night is one of my favorite movies of all time.

"A blummin' bewk!"

ricpic said...

There was real joy in the Beatles. Now it's not allowed.

Mark said...

Douglas Adams. After re-reading his stuff, I find myself writing in the voice of Arthur Dent. It's maddening.

Freeman Hunt said...

Ha. So which commenters are prose poisoning the rest of us?

Celia Hayes said...

Alas, I am able to deliberately mimic the style of any writer that I have been immersed in, most recently - and until I go back and edit, my first drafts contain lots of complex and very long sentences, very much in the High Victorian mode, which is amusing if that is to your taste ... but since it isn't much in fashion these days, I do have to go back and trim around the edges, if I want people to be able to read them out loud without running out of breath.