I appeared at a literary festival in Washington DC recently, in which I was scheduled for a Q&A session about writing and new media.
I was, understandably, mad excited altogether. It was my first time in the States, and I so rarely get a chance to read my blog posts aloud, so before my gig I was hippity-hopping around my hotel room, jacked up on coffee and the sound of my own voice. “David Norris,” I intoned, between slurps of complementary instant. “Daay-vid Norrisss” (I was planning on reading one of my posts on David Norris; I don’t invoke him to ward off nerves, or anything).
All of a sudden, it occurred to me that I was bound to be asked who my influences were – my literary influences, those scribes who hacked out the path ahead of me. What other blogs I read, if I was lucky … but more likely, what other authors I read.
This was a problem.
I don’t read.
Oh, I read in the past. I was more paper than child at one stage, either growing out of or into a book, a muddle of stained fingertips and wild notions. I adored the classics (and still do) – Alice In Wonderland, Watership Down, The Brothers Grimm. I read all of Enid Blyton’s school stories (repeatedly) before moving on to YA Lit from the likes of Melvin Burgess and Katherine Paterson and Roberts Cormier and C. O’Brien. I read constantly. I would rather read than hang out with my friends. I would go over favourite passages whilst brushing my teeth. I would read after lights-out, standing by my bedroom door for the landing light (no torch), stalking like Nijinsky back to the leaba when I heard a parent’s footstep in the hall.
But as an adult? No. I don’t read.
This isn’t because I don’t love words and stories. It should be obvious that I do. It’s not because I haven’t found a wordsmith I admire; there have been plenty. I think it might be because I can’t allow myself the time to read. I wonder about writers who can, really. Does it not feel like reading is an undeserved pleasure, that dipping into a novel is an illicit affair with the words of another? Often, when I read, I get a nasty feeling that I’m wasting my precious time and should be putting words onto paper, not peeling them off on behalf of another writer. Like I’m cheating on myself, I suppose. “I could do better,” I tell myself. “Why am I not breaking me arse trying to outdo this bucko?”
Other times it’s as if I no longer have the ability to lose myself in someone else’s work, that being a writer has saddled me with a sort of cold detachment; I can admire the building blocks, the words they’ve chosen and how they’ve slotted them into place, but I can’t fall in love with them. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to distract myself from my own fiction … self-preservation? Maybe I’ll get over it when I’m finished what I’m working on.
Maybe I can only be me in between bouts of being someone else.
I was terribly ashamed of this, all alone in my hotel room. The general consensus – Jesus, the overwhelming consensus – is that a writer has to read to be able to write. Though I felt like I’d finished my apprenticeship and could learn no more from my elders (I’ve got to be writing to hone this skill, not perving on how other people do it), I couldn’t go around saying that. Not at a literary festival. People would think I was mental.
So there I was before my interview, desperately pulling author names out of the ether and trying them on to see who would fit. Whasshisname? Yer Wanno with the allegories? Jesus, what about all those Books Of The Year everyone’s supposed to have read? Maybe they wouldn’t ask at the reading. Maybe I’d get away with it.
I didn’t, of course. “What other writers have influenced you?” is a question bloody obligatory when you’re interviewing a writer. I despairingly replied that I hadn’t read anything that I didn’t write in the longest time, and someone tweeted it, and for a moment I looked like the most egotistical tosspot in the entire northern hemisphere.
A couple of weeks later, something strange and wonderful happened. I blurted the whole sorry confession to one of my Antiroom sisters at The Irish Blog Awards, and she gave me a huge hug and said, “You’ve just made my night.”
“Because I don’t read, either.”
And y’know what? She’s a proper writer, too. She does things with words that would make W.B. Yeats blush (can you guess who it is yet?). I felt at once validated and liberated. There was nothing wrong with me, after all! I wasn’t egotistical, or deluded, or a great big fraudulent fake. Like, total yayz.
I used to get annoyed when I saw those Tips For Writers posts on blogs, or writers’ rules memes on Twitter, or quotes from successful authors who knew so much about the game, because there were none that matched what I was up to. They felt condescending and isolating – where’s the sense in barking You’re Doing It Wrong! at people who surely need to work this stuff out for themselves? But that moment I knew for certain that there is no Rule Of Writing that isn’t worth bending, no matter how sacred. I’m not ashamed of not being able to finish someone else’s novel. I’m not ashamed to say that my inspiration comes not from other writers, but from sideways glances, video game parameters, folk lyrics, the fashion crimes of people I see on the street.
I am a writer who doesn’t read. And there’s nothing wrong with me.
(I have to admit that I read an entire Melvin Burgess book on the train home from the Blog Awards, because I’m so rebellious I don’t even play by my own rules. Take that, establishment!)