Monday, February 20, 2012

What to Read (or not) While Writing

Recently I was writing away at a nice clip. The book was going well. I was turning out chapters at a good pace. Suddenly, one morning, I realized I had slowed down; instead of scampering across the page I felt as if I were slogging through deep mud. My sentences were long and contorted. The right words were escaping me. I had to grope for them, and often consult a Thesaurus. What was wrong?

That night I picked up my bedtime reading, Wings of a Dove, by Henry James, and had my answer. Subconsciously I’d been trying to imitate James all day. Not only had I failed to equal James, I’d lost touch with my own voice. I remembered another time, long ago, as I was writing a Dr. Fenimore mystery, suddenly the doctor began to sound like Sam Spade. Why? I’d been reading The Big Sleep, by Dashiell Hammett.

I’m not alone with this affliction. A writer-friend, Stephanie Patterson, was working on a novel and had the same problem. She was writing along at a merry pace until one day she slowed down to a crawl. The cause? Villette, by Charlotte Bronte – a wonderful novel, but not Stephanie’s natural style. She put it aside and all was well once more.

You can’t be too careful what you read while writing. To be on the safe side, stick to non-fiction – articles and light essays, or even poetry. Otherwise your mystery may turn into a poor imitation of Swann’s Way or The Brothers Karamazov.

Robin Hathaway


  1. This is excellent advice.My dear friend Andrew Lytle, editor of the reknowned Sewanee Review, told me once, when I submitted a short story to him, that writers not only have to dig deep down into their own emotions, but need to keep their minds free from robbers from other literary pieces. Thelma Straw

  2. I don't know, Robin. I am likely to write long, ungainly sentences--maybe shortened, maybe not, in revision. And when I read them, I think Henry James. But I don't think I ever read a novel of James's, a short story probably, but long ago. So I've concluded that either I was bitten by Henry James in my sleep, or I am Henry James come back. If not the latter, I feel even more strongly that I am Franz Kafka, back for another go-round.

  3. This is so true!! It's like while I'm writing something my mind is searching for a way to be in that jungle of words that make up my writing life. There is a vulnerability I find when I'm writing and I slide into rhythms that are not my when I read powerful, or even lousy, writing. I like reading non-fiction, too when I'm in the throws of writing. And now I see that it is not just me who has this problem. Thanks Robin!!!