Last Friday I spent the night in Orkney Springs for a church work retreat. At Shrine Mont, the other volunteers and I stayed in mismatched houses. My room, on the second floor of a southern-style motel, with outside doors to each of the rooms, was like a nun’s cell. It had a bathroom but no TV, no air conditioning, and no locks on the windows. Most surprising was that the door was open when I arrived. All the doors were open, whether people were home or not. It was 80 degrees in March, but still. I’m from northern New Jersey, and now I live in northern Virginia. My people lock doors, but that night (at least until I went to sleep) I left the door open. It seemed like the right thing to do.
I didn’t think I’d have a lot of time for reading, but I brought with me a book a friend recommended and the latest edition of The Writer.
In the magazine, author Francine Prose gave an interview in which she talked of her book Reading Like a Writer and how important reading is for writers. Stephen King has said that those who don’t have time to read won’t have the tools to write. I thought of two friends of mine, both aspiring authors, who love to read but refuse to read books in their genres while working on a writing project for fear of getting ideas. Am I missing something here?
As writers, all we’re really doing is finding new ways of retelling stories that have been told thousands of times already, and that’s a thought I find more encouraging than stifling. Everyone learns to write by reading. If you’re afraid that reading will give you ideas, then you’re right. It will. That’s the point. How will you know what works and what doesn’t work if you aren’t willing to read what other writers in your genre have done and are doing?
Journalists, from my experience, are the same way — we’re afraid to read someone else’s article on the topic we’re researching for fear that we might plagiarize. So maybe in that instance it’s better to write a rough draft and then read someone else’s story, because isn’t it better to know what you’re up against and use that knowledge to improve upon yourself and your writing than to publish a story not knowing how it might have been so much better if only you’d researched what other writers have done?
But then again, if you’re not interested in improving your writing, go ahead. Close the door. Stay the same. As for plagiarism, I don’t have any official rules on the matter, but there is such a thing as honoring what other authors have done.
J.K. Rowling, widely considered a genius and a revolutionist, channeled Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, during her entire progression of Harry, Ron, and Hermione navigating a maze of rooms beneath Hogwarts near the end of the first Harry Potter. Falling down a deep hole into mysterious world? Having to reach a key to use for unlocking a door? Negotiating a giant chess set? Deliberating over various potions that allow or disallow entrance into the next room? Engaging a magic looking glass?
Influence is what makes writing work. Why would anyone turn their back on what works?