By THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS APRIL 7, 2014, 8:00 PM
In “The Writing Life,” Annie Dillard points out that “[a writer] is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write.” I’ve encountered versions of this adage — along with the more extreme, don’t read anything while writing, lest you contaminate your voice — from a variety of sources and have often wondered how it could possibly be true. After all, I’ve spent my share of time with Dostoyevsky and Camus and I’m still waiting. Such admonishment always struck me as one more of those superstitions writers cultivate for the sake of it, like never discussing a work in progress or stopping only when you know what happens next.
That is not to discount the power of inspiration or the usefulness of outright theft. When I published my first book, a memoir, the experience taught me that writing something of any significant length was an endurance sport as much as anything else. You need patience, stamina and plenty of fuel. I tried to fortify myself with the best nonfiction and fiction I could lay my hands on, from the essays of James Baldwin and Joan Didion, to the stories and novels of Ralph Ellison, Roberto Bolaño and Céline. Distinctive voices like these were a source of constant nourishment on all range of matters, from punctuation to philosophy. They were catalysts for the creative act.
But so were newspapers, movies and music, snippets of conversation, photographs — even the smell of certain foods. Doubtless, reading good books benefited me during the months and years of writing, yet I remained skeptical of any tight correlation to what I produced. That was naïve.
For the better part of three years I’ve been working on a novel about a shooting on Long Island. The manuscript began in a noisy apartment I shared with my fiancée in Bushwick. Since then it has traveled with me and grown in spite of a wedding, stints spent living out of suitcases, and a time-consuming move to Paris. It has survived in the face of increased domestic responsibility, labyrinthine French bureaucracy and the development of a sudden and devastating addiction to online chess. Throughout all of life’s little interruptions and distractions, I prided myself on keeping my work focused and relatively unscathed.
Then two Thanksgivings ago I broke a rib and, while recovering in bed, made the fateful decision to download HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” These enchanting narratives of knights and princesses scheming in a make-believe kingdom were so unexpectedly compelling I ended up binge-watching the first two seasons in as many weeks. Later, when I raised this new obsession with my friends, I was astonished to find out how many serious adults I knew who were deeply invested not just in the TV show but also in the long — sometimes more than a thousand pages long — “Song of Ice and Fire” books by George R.R. Martin, from which it is adapted. One friend, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, confessed to me that he almost bungled his medical boards on account of his reading.
My interest piqued, I still couldn’t picture sitting down to consume Proustian amounts of “Game of Thrones.” (If I were going to read thousands of pages of anything, I felt it should be, well, Proust.) Resistance proved futile, however, when I received the boxed set for Christmas. I picked up the first volume and spent the slow days until New Year’s Eve thoroughly enmeshed, forgetting all about chess or keeping any semblance of a regular schedule. The other books I had going fell by the wayside. By the time January got under way and I resumed work on my manuscript, I was so deep into the habit of “A Song of Ice and Fire” that I was taking it with me into the bathtub.
Early in the series, the dwarf Tyrion explains that he reads a lot because “a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge.” This is a shrewd assessment, though to my chagrin, I was learning the hard way that the more I read about swords and whetstones, the more the vocabulary and imagery of the Middle Ages began stealing into my prose. Hovering in the back of my mind was the ludicrous urge to describe characters dressed in breeches and doublets, sipping horns of mead. And in a moment of sheer delirium, I came close to calling my protagonist’s parents “his lord father and lady mother.”
Worse, despite his prodigious imagination, the fact is Martin traffics in some exceedingly clichéd language (“Gilly’s face went white with fear.”) Under his spell (see?), I could no longer let a building simply be tall, now it had to “lance” the clouds. Doors “moaned” when they opened and the afternoon sun was “as hot as dragon’s breath.” I began to regurgitate a few pet words like one of those deranged messenger ravens, ever eager to note that a road “wended” slowly or a yard was “dappled” with shadow and light.
Even though I was supposed to be dealing with blacks and Italians in Suffolk County, my mind was frozen in Martin’s vernacular landscape. In a novel concerning itself with contemporary American life, this led to some abominable sentences and a lot of wasted pages. The problem revealed its full magnitude to me, however, only when in the course of putting together a short review of a travel memoir, I caught myself contriving to force the words wended and dappled in the text. When I realized what was going on, I wanted to throw my laptop against the wall. George R.R. Martin was officially wreaking havoc on my prose.
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.
The logical thing would have been to bury the books deep inside a dresser drawer and pretend I’d never seen them. I did make one lame attempt to do just that before swiftly relapsing. By this point even my emails had devolved into long-winded discourses, thick blocks of text that slowly wended around themselves, dappled with gratuitous descriptions … I was getting desperate.
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.
I repeated the experiment with some Peter Stamm stories and a little Alberto Moravia. Both left me in the clear and neutral state I needed to be in to proceed. 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. So far so good. If that doesn’t hold I’ll pray to R’hollor the Lord of Light himself that I finish my novel before the next installment arrives.