Please welcome Emily Crow Barker, joining us with her debut novel - The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic!
Beginning writers are usually advised to read, read, read as much as you can. Literary classics, usually: Tolstoy, Melville, Bellow, Cheever, Brontë, Faulkner—just to pick some heavyweights at random. I think that’s excellent advice. Right now, though, I want to make the case for not reading.
Normally, I have a novel going at all times—and when I’m getting to the end of one, I usually make sure that there’s another novel tucked into my bag, ready for me. Call it an addiction if you will. I have long ago accepted that I am powerless over this particular compulsion.
But when I was writing the first draftof The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic—which took more than three years—Idrastically changed my reading habits. I gave up novels almost completely. There were some exceptions: I couldn’t resist The Historianor Perdido Street Stationor the last couple of Harry Potter novels, and I remember rereading Special Topics in Calamity Physics during a long train ride. Overall, though, my normal novel consumption rate, which probably hovers around a book a week, dropped to maybe ten per year.
It was painful, frankly. Why did I do this? A couple of reasons. First, I frankly didn’t want to be intimidated by how much better other, published writers were. Also, I wanted to avoid imitating another writer’svoice or fantasy world. I know very well that there’s nothing truly original under the sun. Every book ever written—except for the very first one, I suppose—is in dialogue with its predecessors, and it wasn’t as though I could forget the novels I’d already read. But I could at least give my creativity a little more room to wander.
Most importantly, however, I wanted to goad myself to write. If I could happily lose myself in someone else’s novel—even during my subway ride or some other time when I couldn’t write—I’d have less incentive to lose myself in writing my novel. Reading and writing are not so far apart when it comes to the role of the imagination.
And yet I still needed something to read on the subway. So I turned to reading novels in French. I don’t speak Frenchthat well, and I read at a glacial pace—it took me six months to get throughThe Count of Monte Cristo (totally worth it, by the way!). But my ineptitude turned out to be a good thing. Reading in French was a great exercise for me as a writer, because I had to go slow and pay very close attention to language, and I was also essentially writing the novel, line by line, as I translated it mentally into English.
I finished the first draft of my novel in May 2009—and the next time I went into a bookstore, it was like going into a bakery after being on a diet for years. Am I advocating that writers give up reading novels for the rest of their lives and learn a foreign language to boot? Not at all. But sometimes, when you really need to concentrate on doing your own work, it’s a good thing to turn down the volume on all the distractions, even the best ones.