Read if you Want to Write
‘Reading is like breathing in and writing is like breathing out.’
~ Pam Allyn ~
I remember a time when I was travelling back home by train to see my mum and sister whilst at university the first time round. The train was jam packed with commuters. Some were staring out the window as lush green fields and sheep zipped by, others were tap tap tapping away on laptops and some were absorbed by their phones. I had been reading George Orwell’s dystopian future 1984 and eager to continue the story, picked it up as soon as I could find a seat. I was quite far through and I won’t say what happened in case you haven’t read it, but suffice it to say, the worst happened. I was so absorbed by the story that I cried out ‘NO!’ much to the dismay of other passengers around me who looked up or turned their heads. Pulled from the book for a moment, I smiled a rather sheepish smile and stuck my nose right back in. I’m a quiet person by nature so to have a brief outburst in public was a bit out of character. I cared so much about the protagonist that I had been quite literally transported to another world so that I was no longer on that train. I was no longer me. I was Winston. His feelings were my feelings. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had when reading a book. Orwell had created a masterpiece that took you out of yourself and plunged you into the most terrifying, believable world that you both wanted to learn more about and escape.
How did Orwell do it? That’s the key question that I didn’t ask at the time. I think I was afraid to ask that of myself because I thought that by asking, my own writing would pale so much in comparison I feared I wouldn’t continue. I went on a journey from there to here as I now I realise that it’s ok to be afraid to ask that question but it’s important to have courage to ask it anyway. What the answers bring to your writing is vital if you want to become a better writer.
Most recently, I have been captivated by two short story collections that I would recommend reading if like me you love writing short stories. They are: Alice Munro’s collection Selected Stories and Raymond Carver’s collection Cathedral. What I noticed about Munro is that she uses dialogue in an understated way and, as John Mullan notes in his book how novels work, she ‘respect(s) the character enough to allow him to keep things to himself.’ Instead of telling, Munro shows by using actions to speak for her characters or by interspersing actions with dialogue. As Mullan suggests, this allows the interaction between characters to be ‘charged with things that cannot be said’ which often reveals more about a character than what they say. As I read stories from Cathedral I found I was pulled in by Carver’s spare style, short sentences and his ability to draw the reader’s attention to unassuming, yet key details. I realised that the reason these stylistic choices fascinated me was because they highlighted the power of leaving the text open for your readers to draw their own conclusions. I would never have learnt these lessons if I hadn’t picked up the collections and asked the question: what makes this work? I can say without doubt that if I hadn’t, my writing would be poorer for it.
Sometimes it can feel intimidating to read fiction and poetry by other writers if you’re a writer. You can read something and be blown away. Then you put the poem or the book down and the doubts about your own writing creep in: ‘Their writing is so much better than mine’, ‘How can I ever be as good as them?’, ‘Should I just give up now?’ My advice? Let the doubts have their say and then disempower them by allowing them to pass. Accept their presence but don’t engage. Then, write down what blew you away about what you just read. Apply this to your own writing. Experiment. Rather than shying away from what works in another writer’s story or poem, learn from it. The idea is not to be another writer but by trying on other writer’s voices you are more likely to find out what works for you and in turn find your own voice.
In short, reading makes us better writers.
I’d now like to share Part I of a short story I wrote entitled Ladybird. It was not an easy story to write and it’s not an easy read but I hope it shows you how much the writers I mentioned have shaped my writing for the better.
My body tenses as my husband sits down beside me on the park bench overlooking the city. He puts his arm around my shoulders and squeezes tight. I can smell alcohol on his breath and shift on the hard, wooden slats in an attempt to move away from the sour odour. After a while Adam withdraws his arm. I watch out of the corner of my eye as his fingers begin tapping out a frenetic rhythm on his knee.
As we sit at the top of the steep hill I notice the glossy leaves have turned to mulch on the pathways. We are surrounded by skeletal trees and grass that has begun to brown and curl. The buildings at the bottom of the park are fractured and starting to disintegrate, leaving piles of rubble on the road below. My gaze lingers on the roof of a dusty red hatchback, now caved in.
Adam clears his throat.
‘I was thinking about how we used to meet here for lunch when we were dating. It looks just the same.’
I grip the cast iron arm of the bench. I want to ask how he can say it looks the same but I swallow instead. There seems little point in responding. We haven’t seen the same thing in a long time and saying so would only draw attention to this. As I look at him I think of how happy we used to be and wish we could go back, but Adam sees what he wants to now. I remember, but he drinks to forget.
A tiny insect flies towards me. Its feather-light legs land on my arm and I realise it's a ladybird. Her bright red body has been replaced by a sallow, grey. Tiny black spots crown each wing, growing bigger and bigger until they engulf her. Ladybirds are supposed to bring you luck and carry your wish on the wind as they fly away. My ladybird has succumbed to the darkness.
I think I hear a woman singing and strain to listen. I lean forwards and look down the hill. The sound seems to be coming from one of the crumbling buildings. I know this song. It’s familiar, so familiar but I can’t remember the words. I want to remember the words.
Ladybird, ladybird fly away home.
I try to get up to go and find the woman but Adam holds onto my arm. I know no matter how I try to get free I will fail.
‘Stay with me Sarah.’ The words are soft and urgent. I attempt to call out, to let the woman know I’m here but find I can’t speak.
Ladybird, ladybird fly away home.
Your house is on fire and your children are gone.
I stop struggling. My hand curls around the pills in my pocket. They’re still here; at least they’re still here. I have twenty two packets now, hidden in a red storage box at the bottom of our wardrobe.
I don’t want to forget.
Until next month then!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and reading the first part of Ladybird.
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