We had a discussion a few weeks ago over at Tomorrowville about whether writers could read while they were actively writing. Some abstain from reading altogether for fear of contaminating their own writing voice; others either feel their voice to be incorruptible, or actively seek ‘contamination’. I’ve always been in the second camp: reading and writing are two entirely separate, albeit related, activities.
But—there’s always a but—I am reading at the moment a wonderful novel recommended to me by fellow MNWer Alis Hawkins. Set in 17th century Derbyshire, Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders is the story of a village that quarantines itself when the plague strikes, told through the first person narrative of Anna Frith, twice a mother and widowed at eighteen before the story even gets going. I’ll write more about this book later; for now, the important thing is that it’s just about bloody flawless. The control of voice, at once accessible but credibly of the period; the evocation of place; the emotional intensity; and the sheer exquisiteness of the prose: all combine in a pitch-perfect narrative that places it in the front rank of historical novels.
And then I have to go away and do my own writing. It didn’t help that last night’s twin scenes were disastrously inept (entirely my own fault—I hadn’t thought through what I wanted from either of them, and the result was woolly mission-creep). It’s difficult, when your own writing venture is misfiring, not to compare your work with whatever you’re reading at the moment. There is decent argument, therefore, for not reading anything too good while you’re writing: it makes your own stuff look like marks scratched in the dirt with a stick.
Part of the writer’s life is to be able to deal with the inevitable swings that come on a project the size of a novel. Some days your prose is godlike and you sense the structure of the whole in your mind without having to reach for it; on other days it seems like even literacy is achievement beyond your grasp. I’m used to it by now. I know what was wrong with last night’s scene, which was not only badly written but in the wrong place; so tonight I’ll be back at the keyboard writing the scene I should have written (and which was taking shape in the shower this morning). And this time I won’t pick up Year of Wonders until I’ve finished writing for the day.