You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfume and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. – Ray Bradbury
All writing starts with words – your own, or someone else’s, but where does one find these words?
Do you remember the first book that had an impact on you? Was there a book in your childhood that had a significant influence that you didn’t notice at the time? What about classics – Austen, Dickens, Stevenson, James? Where to seek for inspiration beside between the covers?
Books that you read have an undeniable impact on you as a writer. Many noted authors have said that they were deeply moved by what they read as youngsters. In some cases it was one particular book that made them want to be writers, the book to which they keep returning for inspiration.
Martin Amis has said:
When I am stuck with a sentence that isn’t fully born, it isn’t there yet, I sometimes think, How would Dickens go at this sentence, how would Bellow or Nabokov go at this sentence? What you hope to emerge is how you would go at that sentence, but you get a little shove in the back by thinking about writers you admire.
If this sounds like a strategy that you could employ, it is definitely handy to surround your writing space with the books by authors you admire. However, do not limit yourself to the greats.
William Faulkner’s advice for young writers was:
Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
Visit libraries and bookshops, go through the stacks, read the dust jackets, poke your nose into the section that you don’t normally visit, give another chance to the genre that you don’t really enjoy, look for reviews and recommendations, stroll down the memory lane and into the children’s shelves, you never know where inspiration might lurk.
Do not limit yourself to books only. Sometimes inspiration comes from another branch of the arts. For example, Salman Rushdie says that much of his writing was shaped by his youthful fascination with the cinema in the 60s and 70s and Stephen Sondheim’ Sweeney Todd owes homage to a rather obscure gothic thriller called Hangover Square.
WHAT TO DO:
Make an appointment with yourself to read a book or watch a film that’s noted as a classic. Think about the books and films you found most formative, however, this time read it not only for enjoyment but to analyze what exactly made the book or film so powerful for you, wherein lies its power. What can you learn from the author’s methods that you could incorporate into your own writing? Consider the plot, the protagonist, the cast of characters and means of characterization. How does the opening capture your interest? What is at stake for the protagonist? What are the story’s surprises? What emotions does it evoke in you? How exactly does it do that?