What To Read When You Write

by Michael Backus

A few weeks into writing my first novel, I began to have second thoughts about the book I’d chosen to read while writing. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s 1,000 plus page novel was starting to produce some consequences I couldn’t have foreseen. Neck problems for one, from carrying it on the subway every day. And more seriously, Wallace’s run-on style and repeated footnoting was producing page-long sentences and parentheses (within parentheses (within parentheses)).

I’d picked the book in the hope it would provoke the kind of literary ambitiousness my own work sometimes lacked. And I liked it. I was 700 pages in and cruising, but I had to put it aside.

It was the wrong book at the wrong time.

Managing what you’re reading while writing fiction can be one more tool a writer controls, a way to take your writing in directions you might not imagine if you were you not reading. I understand the argument that reading fiction while writing fiction is more distraction than benefit. Early in my career, my writing easily slipped into mimicry when reading a strong stylist.

But the more I wrote, the more I understood that the valuable part is the information I get from reading, more than style or voice (though they’re really inseparable): how an alcoholic mother treats her overweight daughter, the effect of the death of a beloved pet on a splintering family, what a living man says to a dying one at the scene of a car accident…basically how human beings interact with other human beings and the myriad ways writers invent to represent this behavior. Reading how another writer conceptualizes universal experiences and emotions helps me understand there are many ways I can approach character and invented behavior, many ways to ellipse time, reveal plot details, inject humor, write dialogue.

It can be easy to develop tunnel vision as a writer. I see it in myself and I see it in my students, a tendency to describe every physical space from the same angle, every character with the same basic set of descriptive tools. Reading the perfect piece of fiction can show a writer a different approach, a way of thinking outside the box.

Look at this passage from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I use this in my teaching because of the creative angle she takes in capturing the essence of a minor character. Students often find it expands their definition of what character description can be. It did for me first time I read it.

Bernice, who lived below us, was our only visitor. She had lavender lips and orange hair, and arched eyebrows each drawn in a single brown line, a contest between practice and palsy which sometimes ended at her ear. She was an old woman, but she managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease.

Even though Infinite Jest wasn’t working for me, I remained determined to find the right book. I decided to try something I’d read before, Already Dead by Denis Johnson. I remembered it as a flawed book with stunning descriptions and outrageously creative similes and that’s what I felt I needed at the point when I was still discovering my novel’s voice. And Johnson’s writing had been good to me before.

I often use this passage from his story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” in my teaching to explain how reading can specifically inspire a writer without turning that writer into a plagiarist or mimic.      

The man hanging out of the wrecked car was still alive as I passed, and I stopped, grown a little more used to the idea now of how really badly broken he was, and made sure there was nothing I could do. He was snoring loudly and rudely. His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming and I couldn’t tell him what was real.

In the last line here, Johnson manages to create an entire world in the tension between “what he was dreaming” and “what was real” and in doing so shows me the world in a way I’d never considered. Two people on the threshold of the most basic of life events and they’re powerless to perceive the others’ experience.There’s simply no way for these two states of being, life and death, to co-exist. Understanding is not possible, it never will be, and there’s great pity in that.

So how did this specifically motivate me? I first read this years ago when I was working on a short story about a 40-year-old man whose wife had recently died from cancer and who had moved back to the house he grew up in. There were all kinds of tensions, chief among them that he’d married her because he couldn’t think of a reason not to and had she not gotten sick, he surely would’ve divorced her by then. There was a spectral feeling to my story, a sense of a haunting even if it was never overt. But after I read the Johnson story and specifically the paragraph quoted above, I realized I needed to capture in flashback some of their last moments together at exactly that time when life and death passed each other.

What emerged was a significant scene (too long to excerpt in full) wherein the narrator, approaching a living character but believing it to be the ghost of his dead wife, has an imaginary conversation with her.

He closed his eyes. What could he say to her? What would she say to him?

You never even liked me.

That’s not fair.

Don’t deny it, do you? You don’t miss me.

I do.

You lie.

You know what I miss? I’ll tell you. The way you’d lean into me sleeping, the way the backs of your legs and body would seek out the front of mine, the way we’d come together like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. It was…perfect. Comforting.

Comforting? So you miss the comfort of my body? What’s next? How wonderfully I scrubbed the toilet bowl? How I folded your clothes after washing?

Come on, the Laundromat did our stuff, you never folded anything. And I cleaned the toilet more often than you did.

And you sure don’t know how to go with a moment.

What I wrote had nothing to do with Johnson’s paragraph; no one reading the two passages would ever connect them. My scene didn’t even end up being a “great pity” moment, though I certainly started with that in mind. But had I not read Johnson’s story, this scene wouldn’t exist at all.

All well and good in the abstract, except Already Dead wasn’t working either. As complex and far-ranging as Wallace’s prose style could be, it never intimidated me. But Johnson’s use of language—his similes and metaphors, how he described the natural world—was so beyond me and so like what I aspired to, I found myself saying, “If I can’t write a line/phrase/paragraph that beautiful, why even bother?” My imagined place in the writing world suddenly felt tenuous, my desire to put words on paper stunted.

I had to put a second book down.

Maybe I was being too casual in my choosing, picking books with literary cachet that actually had very little to do with mine. I’d known about Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here for years. It had a solid reputation and there was a concrete commonality.

Hers was about the volatile relationship between mother and daughter; mine was at least partly the story of a man who had abandoned his daughter eight years before and found himself back in touch. I wasn’t sure how much of the father/daughter relationship would be on paper. I was initially intrigued by the task of writing about a good man with a dark past who at the end of the book makes a morally justifiable decision not to be a part of his daughter’s life.

But the Simpson book was nothing but parent/child interactions, and I found myself writing one father/daughter scene, then another, then another and slowly my book became less about an emotionally isolated man finding his way back from the void and more about an estranged father and daughter delicately picking their ways towards a relationship.

And when I finished the first draft, I came to understand this was really the only direction my story could’ve gone. Once I created the abandoned daughter, she became the gun on the mantelpiece and I had to fully integrate her. Maybe I would’ve come to a similar place in my novel without Anywhere But Here, but I sure wouldn’t have the father/daughter dynamic I have now.

I don’t mean to oversell this. It takes years to write a novel, and I’m not suggesting you “manage” your reading every step of the way. That’s not practical. But there are key moments in the writing of any work of fiction—when you’re discovering the voice, when you’re creating and then deepening the characterizations, when you’ve hit a structural impasse and are unsure of the next step—where it’s particularly important to be reading the right thing at the right time.

The key is to be ruthless in much the same way you have to be about your writing. Stop, step back, look at what you’re reading. Is it having a positive effect on your writing? If not, look for another book. And once you find the right book, slow down. Take your time. Linger in that space for as long as you can. Your writing will be better for it.

This article first appeared in The Writer magazine.