Sunday, May 21, 2006

Everything I’ve Ever Wanted to Write

I had an odd moment while book shopping today. I stopped in at my local independent first and didn’t find a single one of the books on my wish list. I continued on to the used bookstore a few doors down and, it would seem, hit the jackpot. They had an Anna Kavan, a Gilbert Sorrentino, and several Paul Auster novels that I’ve been wanting to read.

But instead of the joyful sense of triumph that such finds generally provoke in me, I felt a mounting sense of panic. As I flipped through the books and read the back cover summaries, I began to feel as if everything I’ve ever wanted to write had already been written, as if all of the ideas that I fancy to be my most original had already been used up by more accomplished writers than me.

I suppose I could transform this moment into a positive—a sign that it’s time to act on the urgency I’ve been feeling lately to devote myself more seriously to my fiction. Perhaps I should even take a break from reading fiction for a bit while I concentrate on writing my own. Or at least take a break from reading the sort of experimental fiction that seems too close for comfort to the thing I’m currently attempting to write.

In the end I did put all the novels back on the shelf. I opted instead for a collection of poetry and two non-fiction books. Then I fled to the nearest coffee shop to comfort myself with tea and a chocolate dessert.

Questions for writers:

What do you read while you’re writing?

Do you feel the need to insulate yourself from books that you fear will prove too strong an influence?

9 comments:

Matt Bell said...

I think you should read towards your influences, not away. Read the kind of books you want to write and also the kind of books that make you want TO write. Why hide from inspiration, or from the influences that in the end, you'll have to claim anyway?

Kate S. said...

Matt,

I agree with you as a general rule that writers should read the sort of books they want to write and that they should be as well versed as possible in their chosen genre. Nevertheless I do worry about reading things that are a little too close when I'm actually in the midst of a draft.

811 said...

I had a very similar experience a few years back with writers like Ron Sukenick and B.S. Johnson - relief that the kind of writing I wanted to see did exist, and exasperation that all my ideas had been used thirty-odd years ago. Bummer.

Now that I've finally managed to start writing, exciting new problems (far worse than the above) have arisen. I find the stuff I write is nothing like what I read and that one piece is unlike the next. Stupid questions like 'Does this count as fiction?' present themselves - ridiculous when all my 'influences' are innovative writers who didn't give a shit about established form. Other questions include 'Is this profound or just boring?', 'What happened to my comic writing? Am I not funny anymore, am I just striving for the 'serious' because it seems trivial otherwise?' Other times it's 'Why is this one conventional realism, wasn't I always saying that's an obsolete form?'

And the big one: 'Is this any good or just a horrible, horrible embarrassment?'
All this is usually followed by a self-loathing that renders chocolate desserts impossible.

Well...hope this helps. It made me feel better anyway. Wait, it actually didn't...

Kate S. said...

811,

I can definitely relate, especially to the bit about the simultaneous relief and exasperation.

811 said...

It's good that you don't relate to the rest as much, that means that a) you don't struggle as much with writing, and b) you're sane.
Or maybe it's all yet to come...

By the way, you should have bought the books - by the sound of it all the little cherries were lined up, money spewed forth from the machine like lava from a supposedly dormant volcano, and a regular customer with wispy beard and string vest eyed you with violent avarice.
Except for the Auster part, he's everywhere.

Kate S. said...

I think I will go back today for the Sorrentino and the Kavan. I've never looked for Sorrentino's books before so I don't know how rare a sighting that one was, but I've been keeping an eye out for Kavan titles for months now and that was the first I'd run across. I guess if the regular customer with the wispy beard and the string vest has already walked off with them, there's always the option of buying online. Somehow it's not the same though...

Mark said...

There are a few writers--Beckett and Stein come to mind, but maybe also Clark Coolidge--whose work I can read only in small doses due to its brilliance. And I think I mean brilliance, because I feel I could be blinded if I read too much. It's like, yes, this is exactly the direction in which I like to head, but, after a bit, it's too much for now (sometimes it's more as if I feel the bottom of my world dropping out, which is scary). I feel as if these are the people whose work I circle around in my writing. There are others-- (always) Creeley, Nelson Ball, (lately) W.W.E. Ross, Lorine Niedecker--whose work sustains me on a level closer to technique and who are as important to me but who feel less likely to blind.

Mark said...

Technique is definitely the wrong word. What do I mean? I think that I can read the second list and feel more comfortable. It's like the difference between rich, dark chocolate and, I dunno, apples, which I love.

patricia said...

I'm a cartoonist and illustrator first and foremost, but I do want to sink my teeth into more creative writing. When I am writing something which outside of posting on my blog, I tend to read books that are absolutely nothing like what I am writing, for that very reason, that I don't want to be too influenced by that specific writer.