You Are What You Read

I was hoping the next piece I posted on this blog would be creative, but I have been using my inspiration for my fanfiction story instead, so that will have to wait.  I started a piece personifying anorexia, but I don’t know if it is going to turn out any good.  I was hesitant to write something like this because I am not a writing authority in any sense.  So I guess this piece is not really advice. It’s more like my opinion on the matter.

I started writing fiction about five years ago at the onset of my health issues. I was a science major in undergrad college and went on to get an advanced degree in the medical field, so I pretty much learned how to write on my own.   In the beginning I knew very little about the components of good writing, and I just wrote what was in my head.  It sucked really bad.  And the funny thing is that I didn’t even know it was bad until I became a much better writer.

A huge turning point for me was becoming friends with this other fanfic author who wrote the most beautiful, creative, and inspiring pieces. I talked to her about what books she read.  She recommended two books for me, one was The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and the other was October Light, by John Gardner.  Now I’ve always loved poetic prose, even before I knew how to write. I was hooked within one page of The Road. I immediately fell in love with McCarthy’s beautiful prose. It was unlike anything I had ever read before.  It’s hard to describe, but the feeling was akin to watching a beautiful sunset, the dying sun bleeding into the horizon with the sky awash in a golden glow, as if gilded by the heavens.

I actually think The Road is the most accessible piece of work by McCarthy. If you haven’t read anything of his and would like to try, I recommend reading that one first, and then moving on to his other novels if you enjoy it.  I’ve read several of his books, and while they are all beautiful, they are more difficult to read than The Road.  His style is characterized by stark passages interjected with long poetic ones.  In some of his books it’s more obvious than others. The Road has less of a dramatic shift between the two.  His writing tends to be depressing, but poetic prose is the perfect vehicle for angst.  Many of his stories conclude with a hope filled moment, but others don’t.  Some just end on a bleak note and make you lose faith in the world and humanity.  But he is being real.  Not everything in life ends happily ever after.

McCarthy heavily influenced my own writing, and that’s when I really started to improve.  There is not one way to write well, and not everybody likes or wants to write poetic prose, and that’s fine.  But I wanted to write like Cormac McCarthy, even though it is not an achievable goal XD I think it is good to have lofty dreams because you can’t ever reach them, so you are always working to improve.  I told myself that once my writing was good enough I would start writing my own fiction vs. writing fanfiction.  But my standards are so high that I will never meet them.  So after my fanfiction story is done, I will start working on my own fantasy novel.  A friend of mine, who I’ll call Friend A, is also a writer and we talked about collaborating on the project.  My weaknesses are her strengths and vice versa.  In the meantime, I will write some original short stories to help me ease into the process.

To get the most benefit out of reading, I have to read slowly and absorb the prose.  I am trying to think of a good way to explain that.  I am actually a very fast reader.  As a child I out-read all of my peers in speed.  And I could still read fast if I just wanted to follow the story, but if I want more than that I have to read slowly.  To absorb prose, I often stop and contemplate the way an author puts the words together along with their meaning.  I also think about the way the passage feels.  Words have a very specific feeling, and some words fit better together than others.  This is why indiscriminate use of a thesaurus will hurt your writing.  You see that a lot in fanfiction actually.  Using a thesaurus isn’t necessarily bad, but you have to know the meaning and feeling of a specific word before you just place it in your story or it can come out very awkward.

Some other authors that pen their novels in poetic prose are William Faulkner, Margaret Atwood, and Timothy Findley.  I’m sure there are many others, but I love these authors so much I just keep rereading their books.  As far as entertainment value, Atwood takes the prize.  I’ve read several of her books, but I think the one I like most is Oryx and Crake.  It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, which is my favorite kind of setting XD  It’s kind of a dark comedy mixed with elements of sci-fi, but she is not a sci-fi author.  I don’t know of many people personally that would read Faulkner for fun.  He is a literary genius, and his writing is gorgeous, but sometimes the plot is kind of dry.  Findley addresses mental illness in many of his novels, and in at least two of them, one of the main characters is schizophrenic.  My favorite novel of his is Headhunter because he blends reality with delusions so perfectly the reader has a hard time distinguishing what is real.  And it builds off of the novel A Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.

The hardest part of coming back from a writing hiatus is that if I’m not doing well enough to write then I’m usually not well enough to read.  I spent most of 2013 flooding my mind with happy things that required little thought to process because I was so scared I might never get my right hip fixed.  Writing is kind a like ballet, or any other art, in the sense that if you don’t practice it regularly then you lose some of your skills.  Now that I have had my right hip surgery, I am working on reclaiming my life, and I am able to write again 🙂

As a final note I should mention that an author’s writing style is individualized.  In the music world, singers often cite multiple sources of inspiration.  The first time I heard the song, “Anything Could Happen,” by Ellie Goulding, I thought it was Björk.  Lo and behold, Goulding lists Björk as one of her biggest inspirations.  As singers they are different, but you can definitely see the similarities between the two.  I think it is the same with writing.  There will never be another Cormac McCarthy, but there may be authors that are reminiscent of his style.

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5 thoughts on “You Are What You Read

  1. “Writing is kind of like ballet… if you don’t practice it regularly then you lose some of your skills”. So true! At one point I was convinced I would never write another poem but actually I had starved myself of inspiration and not carved out the peace and quiet I needed to write. Many important thoughts shared in this list and some books I need to check out! Thank-you :).

    • I improved a lot after reading some great literature. Since you like poetry, you might like McCarthy because his prose is gorgeous. I just recently reread, The Road for like the 4th time XD It inspires me and reminds me of why I love to write ^-^

      • I was just thinking back to some of the comments my highschool English teachers used to make about my writing. Mostly very positive, but one thing I noted was that they always described my writing style as “simple”. I didn’t read very widely after senior highschool because my time was always taken up with university study or reading for a purpose. I am thinking that the way forward for me, in inspiration and in developing my ability to write is to do the same as you and expand my reading repertoire to include some great literature. Thanks for the recommendations and the inspiration!

      • Well, I used to think that poetic prose was the best, and that everyone should aspire to write poetic prose. But a lot of people don’t even like it XD The market is so diverse now that you can cultivate a following with any style 🙂 I guess you could compare it to music. You can’t really say that opera is better than pop music because they are so different. I love poetic prose, but I often struggle with poetry because I suck at literature analysis. My favorite poet is Robert Frost, and I guess he is one of the simpler poets. I think it’s good to read lots of good fiction and poetry, and when you find something that resonates in your heart, read everything they write. And you can’t just skim, you have to really contemplate the prose to absorb it. Magaret Atwood was my first inspiration. As soon as I read her stories I knew I wanted to write like her. Reading McCarthy for the first time gave me a mindgasm * -* I have read several of his novels, and reread others. I have trouble reading anything else because it’s just not as good in comparison XD I’m learning to branch out and diversify.

      • Much great wisdom there- thank-you! Robert Frost is awesome. I used to mainly be into Australian bush poetry but these days I appreciate free-form, Haiku- all sorts! Like you said- it has to resonate.

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