A friend of mine gave me a copy of Annie Dillard's famous book The Writing Life last year and I both love and loathe the advise she gives. So I was excited see this Op-Ed in the Times by Thomas Chatterton Williams that circles around her warning that a writer is "careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write".
Cutting to it: Williams goes on a Game of Thrones watching and reading binge and he can't shake that style and voice out of his own writing.
"I do not mean to sound presumptuous: There are far worse things than crafting a massively successful, carefully plotted and highly lucrative series of fantasy novels. The problem for me was that I wasn’t writing anything close to as good as the books whose language and thought patterns I was so haplessly aping. Nor was I any longer making the kind of work I’d set out to create in the first place. I was somehow pumping out a terrible sausage of the two."
Williams, I have BEEN THERE man. I am a total language ape. I'm one of those people who has to resist putting on an Irish accent when in Irish company. Which is why, when I'm writing, I don't avoid reading all together (impossible, unpleasant) but rather, I read things that are sooooo far from my voice that it would feel ludicrous and immediately unnatural to mimic it. It's easier to catch the straying this way.
Williams has a similar solution:
"Salvation arrived (knock on wood) when I decided to give Teju Cole’s “Open City” another go. This was a streamlined book I had tried several times to start without any traction. Coming back to it in the middle of “A Song of Ice and Fire” was a revelation. No matter how much Martin I had ingested, 15 minutes with Cole was like a palette cleanser on my mind, a spoonful of cool sorbet after a long and heavy meal....The solution, I’m convinced now, isn’t to read less (that would be boring) or even, as Dillard suggests, to censor what is taken in. On the contrary, the answer seems to be to take in more."
(Bold emphasis my own.)
All of this makes me think about a conversation I've been having with our various friends who come up and visit on the weekends--
A lot of them ask what's different up here in the country vs. back down in Brooklyn. What do we like, what do we dislike, how does it affect our writing/art/motivation. And doing leftover dishes one morning with my friends Dominique and Mary I stumbled upon the realization that a hugely important change is:
I've stopped constantly comparing myself to other people.
Part of that is that I very literally do no see other people that much. (It's nearly noon and so far and I've seen only Steven and a guy in a phone service truck.)
And naturally that will change once we're running a business that's sole focus is having people around--
But I think there's really something to be said for NYC's particular hustle, bustle, and rat race bullshit. It's a place where people come to WIN. To be THE BEST. And right now I'm really and thoroughly enjoying living at my own pace, in my own way. I don't feel guilty about getting up "late" at 8am because I see people coming back from their runs around Prospect Park, I don't feel unstylish next to that perfectly hip woman on the G train, I don't feel like a failure going to book events for famous young writers, or on the brink of poverty for not being able to afford a $16 cocktail.
It's one thing to feel inspired by other people, but quite another to feel inadvertently dragged down by their "success".
I'm doing things on my own, for their own sake and value, not in comparison to what I think I should be doing or what other people are doing. AND OH MY GOD IS IT LIBERATING.
All of this is not to say that I was desperately unhappy in New York. It's more like I no longer have this anxious hum in the background of everything, and that silence lets me focus on what's actually in front of me. And oh my, it can so be inspiring.