Anxiety of influence be damned; or, musings from my residency (part 1)

Hedgebrook, cottage
my reading chair at Hedgebrook

Three weeks ago I returned from a four-week stay at Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers on gorgeous Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. This morning I started a blog post to reflect on my experiences there, but it grew so unreadably and Internet-inappropriately long that I’ve ditched it and opted to share my ideas in smaller installments over the next weeks and months.

First up, some thoughts on writers and their relationship to reading.

We all know that writing begets writing, and boy, did I ever live that at Hedgebrook. The more I wrote, the more I had to write about, the more I wanted to write, and the more mental energy I had for writing (physical energy was a different matter — and may be the subject of a future blog post).

But I also believe that reading begets writing.

I know writers who say they can’t read while they’re writing because they’re too susceptible to being influenced by the other writer’s style and concerns. I can appreciate that point of view. Even the great French essayist Montaigne said, “When I write, I prefer to do without the company and remembrance of books, for fear they may interfere with my style.”*

As for me, however, I say bring on the influence. I am neither so confident of nor so wedded to my own style or ideas that I’m not willing to be prodded by my forebears and betters. I also like to feel that I am, in my very small way, participating in the long-running and multifarious conversations of the world’s literary traditions. I don’t think that’s possible unless I’m reading — reading lots of stuff, all the time.

One of the best things about being at a residency was the chance to indulge completely in this symbiotic (or perhaps simply parasitic) relationship between other people’s words and my own.

Every morning, I woke up, made a cup of tea, and read aloud from Kay Ryan’s new book, The Best of It. After a few weeks, I started writing poems — something I haven’t done in years. Yes, they sound a bit like poor Kay Ryan knock-offs and will not be appearing in a literary journal near you anytime soon. But the requisite attention to language, to individual words and sounds, to the look of a line, and to the poetic occasion was valuable.

In late morning, I’d take a break from writing with Philip Lopate’s anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay. Seneca’s “On Noise” inspired me to begin an essay called “On Phobia.” A few lines in Montaigne’s “Of Books” gave me an idea for a project that messes with Aesop’s Fables. Max Beerbohm reassured me that being funny is good.

After dinner I’d work through Marlene Van Niekirk’s Agaat, my mind reeling, not only from the devastating story it tells, but with notions about structure, framing, and narrators both shifting and unreliable. The book encouraged me to stick with a second-person point of view I’d chosen for one story (the first time I’d ever attempted a “you” perspective).

And then I’d drop off over War and Peace. I may burn forever in some literary hell for the heretical reaction I’m now about to make public, but — I just felt like the poor man could not decide whether he was a novelist or a historian, and that the book suffered — and I suffered — as a result.  Not that I’m comparing my own endeavors to Tolstoy’s, but I really want to not do this in my own book.

Negative influence can be useful too.

Unless I’m so overwhelmed by another’s genius that I want to stop writing, of course. I quoted Montaigne above on not reading when he writes. Here’s the next line: “Also because, in truth, the good authors humble me and dishearten me too much.” Oh, I have been there, and I don’t have a good antidote. I will confess I occasionally hold my nose through a mediocre piece of fiction just for the pleasure of knowing I can do better and thinking, geez, if that can get published, surely I….but this is certainly among life’s lesser pleasures.

The real pleasures — and benefits — are from steeping oneself in what is wonderful. The residency let me do that with an intensity and single-mindedness I haven’t enjoyed since college. For that, and so much more that I hope to talk about in upcoming installments, I am enormously grateful to the wonderful staff and donors and other writers who make Hedgebrook and places like it possible.

*Montaigne quotes from “On Some Verses of Virgil,” tr. by Donald M. Frame, in The Art of the Personal Essay, ed. Philip Lopate, Anchor Books, 1995.

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