Contemporary and epic fantasy with unforgettable characters, complicated families, and music in the sentences.

If We Write What We Read, What Happens When We Read Ourselves?

Here’s a classic piece of creative writing advice: First read all of Faulkner, the king of long sentences, to learn how to write to extremes; then read all of Hemingway to clean the Faulkner out of your system. I haven’t followed that one in the specific (Thanks anyway, John Gardner), but I have embraced then general principle that our writing voices change, whether we want them to or not, under the osmotically absorbed influence of our reading.

Sometimes that embrace is deliberate. There’s some particular technique or kind of scene I don’t really have a handle on, so I figure out who the two or three uncontested masters of that thing are, and I read them until I can more or less do the thing. Whatever I know about writing battles at sea, I learned from spending a few months wallowing in Patrick O’Brien novels. Nobody will ever write them like he does, but I can now say I’ve written some that don’t suck.

Sometimes that embrace is consolation about unfortunate truths. When I read large swaths of student writing, I begin to write like a student. I absorb their patterns of error, their generational tics, their unexamined habits of thought (despite my having examined them extensively). I love teaching. It’s the only practical trade I know. But I am so grateful that I don’t have to do it full time.

So what happens when you read your own writing? Do you become your own influence?

When I was a college student, back in the Late Cretaceous, one of my professors was doing some of the first computational humanities work. He was nailing down the sequence of Shakespeare’s plays. (Years later, he would use similar methods to confirm the identity of the Unabomber, though that’s just a cool aside.)

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