A few years ago I was on a writing course with a scarily famous tutor. Some of us were new to fiction writing. We were working on different pieces: novels, short stories, poetry and memoir, but we had a common aim: how could we discover our writing voices? ‘Read, read, read; write, write, write,’ said our tutor. But we’d be influenced, we said. We’d end up sounding like Margaret Atwood, or Dickens. ‘Be influenced!’ she boomed. That was the end of the discussion.
Perhaps we were naïve. But it was a serious point. Finding your writing voice is the holy grail of good writing: it’s what agents are looking for; as a reader, it’s what makes me pick up a book, or put it down. An original voice leaps out from the page: pulls you in from the first sentence. We all recognise a voice that speaks to us: makes us want to keep reading. We may not always like it, or agree; but we want to hear more.
We weren’t the only writers aware of the difficulties. I’ve read AS Byatt saying she reads no fiction when she’s writing her own, for fear of being influenced; and Zadie Smith confessing that the style of whatever she’s reading creeps into her writing. And of course out-and-out plagiarism is not to be recommended.
And there’s no shortage of writing advice: from Orwell’s famous ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’ to my favourite: Elmore Leonard’s brilliant ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’.
But I’ve realised that studying – not just reading – beautiful writing only benefits my own. One of the best writers on this topic is Francine Prose, whose book ‘Reading Like a Writer’ (Union Books) uses a range of narratives to illustrate different aspects of writing, from creating dialogue to showing gestures. There’s even a brilliant chapter on ‘Reading for Courage’: because as she says, ‘most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery [but also] failure of nerve’.
The benefits of being alive to other influences came home to me at choir the other night. Our numbers keep growing so the different sections, from basses to sopranos, sit close together. At first I made sure to sit away from the next section – otherwise I lost my part, and started singing theirs. Then after a few weeks, something odd and lovely happened: instead of just trying to keep up, I heard the voices around me. I could enjoy the harmony we made, and hang on to my own melody.
Maybe writing can work in the same way: I can take what I need from other writers – how they tackle dialogue, setting, character – and use it for my own writing. I can look objectively at their work, instead of worrying about reproducing it.
Just like singing in the choir, that needs other magic ingredients: practice, confidence, and self-belief. That’s what I could have told our group of new writers, all those years ago: finding your writing voice means having confidence in your ability, and believing in what you have to say.
This resonated with me, Sarah, as I’m always terrified of being influenced by what I’m reading when I’m writing. But we have to keep reading so it’s always a dilemma. Loved the choir analogy to.
Thanks for your comment, Tracy. It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? It was such a powerful feeling to hear my voice – and the singers around me – in the choir, that it really made me think about how we influence each other. Everything comes back to writing..!