I have to manage the books that I read like medicine that can be easily overdosed upon. Previously, blurbs could maim. It could feel like my sea anemone-soul was sliced in nearly-half, the side with the regenerative command centre was left, so it could grow back, but so much would be missing. The new half encapsulating a memory of what was lost.
Doesn’t everyone feel the stiletto gash when reading a long list of awards and publications by an author? It can cripple or slaughter the wobbly-limbed newborn of literary pretension.
The cornucopia of tortures a mind can devise for itself is, in itself, a wonder of the natural world. Think cobweb of spite. Think wide-eyed nocturnal mammal more and more garrotted each time it struggles inside a bramble with thorns hooked and barbed with vicious design.
I harbour lines thrown away by writers, expressions of such danger. Sometimes, these ideas feel like minute vials of nitro-glycerine tucked under my heart, troubled by its beating. So I am pussy-footing.
Orhan Pamuk said his father spent his whole life half-hiding his dream of being a writer. When his son had had some success, and towards the end of his life, Pamuk’s dad tugged a trunk of notebooks for his son to judge. You can guess what’s coming. What Pamuk said – he did love his father, I’ve read as much between lines elsewhere – was steely. As it should be. The lesson is harsh.
Beware. Beware. JK Rowling/Kafka. Go figure. Though reading all of Kafka now would do me in. As a writer, reading the blah of JK might be like wandering a deserted, half-demolished rooms of an MOD base, pre-fabricated for a war no one documented. Kafka is done. Black-brick walls of brilliance. What I’m suggesting is that you might have some space for your own thoughts to take and thrive if what you read – sometimes- is tripe.
Here is a dialectic: hang out with friends you admire (because isn’t it true that to predict your school grades you take the mean of your mates’) versus if you don’t make mistakes how can you expect to be original?
I’ve forgotten who said that for twenty-something years he was a reader and could read what he liked, but then started to write and could only write what he wrote. In his voice, not the variety he had enjoyed reading.
There’s a Tate exhibition on the influence of Picasso on contemporaneous British artists. I’ve heard it’s excruciating: the pastiches, sycophancy, fawning. I get that you have to emulate to learn, but really?
Reading as a writer generally means holding a pen as you go. Falling into sleep with a copy of the collected Macneice with a propelling pencil to scribble like a trembling machine charting minute tremors.
I purchased Jack London’s “The People of the Abyss” from a Salvation Army shop. In 1902 Mr London wandered, and stayed in digs, in East End London slums and wrote about them. The workhouses and the squalor. It’s a slim volume of tightly packed type. There are some photos in it. Really poor quality, like they are the photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a blurred photo that had been through a washing machine. I have a biro laid on the top of the book. The book is laid on top of my writing book. I am going to read “The People of the Abyss” in order to write.