Monday, 14 March 2011

Does Reading Other Writers Influence Your Voice?

The poet I mentioned in my last post did justify her non-reading position. She was worried, she said, about another poet influencing her voice.

It's a common fear, but one that is ungrounded. If you go to any writing class or circle and hear people reading their work, it's utterly clear that their 'voice' is there, fair and square. Our writing styles are set in our own personality. They're in the way we speak, the vocabulary we use, the things we choose to write about. We can no more lose them than getting a Rachel hair cut would suddenly make me look like Jennifer Anniston.

Try looking at it from the opposite angle. Rory Bremner, Roni Ancona, Jon Culshaw et al are paid vast sums of money to imitate celebrities. And how often do they manage it? We recognise who they're trying to be, but you don't for a minute actually believe that the impressionist is that person. They are always, noticeably, themselves first, the celebrity second.

Ditto parodists. We laugh because the imitation is good, but it's rare that we think we're actually reading Dickens or Austen or whoever. So if the very very best can't lose their voice in another writer's style when they're trying exceptionally hard to do so, why do you think your voice will get lost?

I remember going to a workshop, long before I was published, and being asked to write a piece in the style of Carol Shields. I dutifully did this - rather well, I thought, if I'm honest. But the teacher shook her head at all our efforts, including mine. None of us could 'do' Carol Shields, we were all too busy being ourselves even when we were trying our hardest to be someone else.

I must admit I don't read my genre when I'm writing, but that's because I'll get envious/depressed that they write well or have a good story idea, or furious/depressed because it's badly written and yet it still got published. Either way, it's not good for my writing to be sitting in front of the laptop in a state of envy/depression/fury. And I do have a residual fear I might inadvertently nick a good phrase and pop it into my own work.

But losing my voice? No, never. It simply won't happen. Read on.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


Jim Murdoch said...

I've been lucky in that I've never been prone to imitate and apart from a handful of poems written just for fun in the style of Bukowski or Pinter or William Carlos Williams I have stuck to my own voice. That said I tend not to read anything when I'm doing serious writing on a novel and I know other authors are the same; they catch-up on their reading later.

Nicolette said...

I had an editor a while back say to me that I wrote like James Herbert, that 'his' voice was very strong in my work.

I tried to take this as a compliment. Herbert is a great writer, but it put the editor off buying the story because he said he wanted to hear 'my' voice.

IT was really difficult to think about how I'd written the story to sound like Herbert and how I could change, but it was hard and a long drawn out process. But challenging in a good way!

Sarah Duncan said...

Jim, I tend to catch up on reading in my genre when I'm not actively writing.

Nicolette, that sounds like one of those annoying/disheartening editor comments. I'd never take anything one particular editor/agent says to heart. For certain university courses I teach there are two markers, so I know that we often have very different takes on the same piece of work.

Bethany Mason said...

I don't think that being worried about imitating is a good reason for not reading - unless you only ever read one writer. Surely, if you are widely read then certain aspects of each writer will become a part of your own writing; but the result will be an amalgamation which you can safely call your own voice as no one else will have exactly the same amalgamation of influences as you.