Wednesday, August 23, 2006

To read or to write

Anyone who has read my contribution to the Palgrave MacMillan Creative Writing Handbook (edited by Mary Luckhurst and John Singleton) will know that I strongly recommend that those who want to write should read, read and read all the time. You hear it everywhere from practised novelists: readers make writers. Most writers were big readers as children; books and the shapes of novels and the tropes of story-telling make up their psyches. And when I'm stuck as a writer, reading other people can get me writing again, something which Erica Jong has also said.

Not long ago though, Jeannette Winterson stated without shame that she finds it hard to read others while she is writing, which must be most of the time, and in the process she let the cat out of the bag. It's true for me too, in spite of all my pious urgings to others: when I'm writing I need to stick to my own psyche and (I hope) original vision, I can't go letting other people's fabulous sentences and images infiltrate my head (which, when writing is good, they inevitably do) and therefore my work. I have to read between projects. (Perhaps, while I'm at it, I should confess that I had hardly ever listened to any radio plays when I wrote my first one, Rhyme or Reason, which went on, to my shock, to receive two Sony nominations: I simply wrote what I wanted to hear, which goes against all advice to would-be radio dramatists which I've ever read.)

Three years ago, when I embarked on the long novel I've recently finished, I, the great champion of reading, was going to become a non-reader unless I did something quick. So I started a reading group, and at least once a month I was made to read a book, and got away from the self-imposed isolation I found necessary to write the novel, and had a laugh and a booze-up to boot. It's still going, I doubt we'd ever give it up now. (I report our discussions on my website.) This month we're reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, whose sixties novels are undergoing something of a revival with Methuen's recent reprinting. Trouble is, now, instead of a novel to write, I've got that blinking paint stripping to stop me reading it...

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