What We Read

For many writers what we do not read when we are writing can be as important as what we do read.


What I absolutely do not read when starting something new is anything even remotely related to whatever I am working on. If there are things I need to research before I write about a particular subject matter, I try to do the research long before I begin to write.


Reading the latest best-selling book on prayer while trying to write a book about prayer is not easy for me. Writing poetry while reading Rilke will undoubtedly end with my making no poetry at all. If I ever take a chance on writing the two novels I have been carrying around in my head for years, I anticipate a five-year hiatus from Le Carré and Greene and O’Brian will be necessary.


Day in and day out, at least for this writer, approaching original proves difficult. It is hard enough to keep piling one sentence on another without the added burden of feeling as though I must measure up to a passage clearly superior to what I am trying to make.


I think I agree with the critic Clive Barnes: “The job’s impossible, and one must pray that one will be only moderately incompetent.”


Reading work that constantly reminds me I will never measure up discourages me when I am trying to make something new.


Reading great work in the field in which I am working can end up skewing the sound of my voice, twisting it ever so slightly into what sounds like a poor echo of the voice of someone whose work I admire. Reading such work at the wrong time can make it hard for me to make work of my own.


To be a writer and not be under the influence of other writers is impossible. But I recommend you go carefully. Pay attention to who you read when you are writing. Pay attention to how the light in the hallway falls upon them and how it falls upon you.


– Robert Benson, from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”