Thursday, December 25, 2014

Reading What You Want to Write

One of the best ways to put yourself in the right mind frame to create a certain type of writing is to read works in that same mold. For instance, if you plan to write formal poetry, read formal poetry. If you plan to write a novel in the voice of a female, first-person speaker, read books that have a similar narrator. The advantage is not just that you have a model to imitate. I believe it actually affects your brain to read certain types of literary works.

The so-called “Mozart Effect” was announced by researchers in a letter to Nature magazine in 1993, claiming to show that the IQs of test subjects spiked upwards after listening to ten minutes of Mozart. I believe from my own experience that listening to complex music such as classical or jazz can energize the creative sectors of the brain. I also feel that my own ability to write in a literary way increases when I read or listen to good books. There may well be biochemical changes that happen in our brains when we read or listen to certain kinds of writing.

I experienced the benefits of this myself when I was trying to translate George Sand’s novel Horace from French to English. 

George Sand
It took me about two years to translate this remarkable novel, written in the 1840s, and so far ahead of its time in its treatment of the rights of women and working people. During the two years I was working on that translation, I read almost exclusively novels by nineteenth century authors, mainly women. I was trying to get into my head an English voice that I felt would be an equivalent to George Sand’s narrative.

What an amazing education and privilege that was, to read Persuasion by Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, (who took part of her pen name from Sand), The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and other books. Oddly enough, though, none of those writers reminded me of the wry, urbane George Sand. The English Romanticism of the Brontës or George Eliot is more earnest and less urban than Sand’s Horace. Austen is similar—she's also a comic writer, but her world of rural Regency England is so much more innocent than the Paris of George Sand during the Romantic era of the mid-nineteenth century. The book written in English that most sounded to me like the voice of the novel Horace was William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, with its satiric look at London society.

It is possible to overdo reading what you want to write. When I was translating George Sand’s Horace, I became so immersed in Victorian diction that every sentence I wrote in English felt as though it was choking on a tightly knotted cravat. I had to back away and rewrite the translation in a more contemporary voice, and then merge the more modern version with the draft that was written in old-fashioned and formal diction. I was very much helped and guided in this process by my editor at Mercury House publishers, Tom Christensen, an accomplished author and translator, who is also a fellow editor at Catamaran Literary Reader.

But in general, I think reading what you want to write is a good rule of thumb. So unless you plan to write blogs, this is probably the place for both you and me to stop for now!

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

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