Resources for Writers
Read to Find Your Voice by Rob Doyle
or The Decapitation of John Banville (Cannibals Have More Fun)
Balzac once said (or maybe it was Flaubert, or Zola, or Victor Hugo, or Lautréamont, or Christ, maybe it was Stendhal, I really can’t remember) that to write one book you need to read five thousand. That seems to me about right, though maybe I would push it to five-thousand five-hundred, or even as many as six-thousand.
How do you ‘find your voice’? Like this: by breaking and entering the voices of others and ruthlessly appropriating them. I read the work of an author who excites me – let’s say Martin Amis – and I detect in it shades of Nabokov, smears of Joyce, the grubby fingerprints of Norman Mailer. It’s love and theft, and we’re all at it. Language was around long before you showed up, son, and it’ll outlive you too. If you’re going to use it while you’re here, then the first thing you need to know is that ‘your voice’, when you find it, will be made up of the voices of many others, voices which are not your own but which spark a resonance in you, chime with some longing or hilarity or lust in yourself. ‘Your voice’ is a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from the voices of these many others, the living and the dead. Originality comes from summoning the spirits you have absorbed – from literature, but also from the world around you – and breathing into them your own deformation: the mesh of quirks, kinks, prejudices, perversities and passions that make you you. You don’t really ‘find’ your voice; you assemble it.
To clarify: reading is key. ‘Living’ is important too, but that’s going to happen anyway (by osmosis, as it were), so let that go on in the background, and if it’s a writer you want to be – a writer of books, of fictions, of lies and memoirs, of accounts of voyages to Antarctica or years spent living in the wilds with bearded insurrectionists – then devote yourself to reading. But everyone knows that already. The word is out. What might be lesser known is that it’s not only reading one should be doing, but rereading. That’s when the deep stuff happens. When you read a book, if you love the book, if it excites or mesmerizes or impresses you, and if it inspires in you the desire to emulate (which is where most literary inspiration comes from), then go back and read it again. Don’t give the goddamn book away once you’ve finished it (or better yet, do give it away, then go out and buy another copy, because if a book is wonderful, if it beautifies the world, then there cannot be too many copies in circulation).
Read the book again; study its moves. Watch very carefully how it pulls it off, how it works the trick, how it gets away with it. Reread the whole book, if you feel like it, or just reread the passages you want to crack. Go into it like a detective, or a code-breaker, or a forensic pathologist, or a bomb-disposal expert: what makes it tick, what is the circuitry, how does it flow? While you are rereading, movement occurs in the depths: the literary unconscious is taking it all in, absorbing, growing stronger and more confident, adding to its repertoire. Later, when you sit down to write, when you’re in your own flow, that work – the reading and rereading – will make itself felt. You will manage things without realizing where they came from (later you may notice); your language, rather than produce itself ex nihilo, blandly, will be charged with the force of the voices you have fed upon, cannibal that you are, that all writers are.
What I’m saying is that the clearest analogue for the process of figuring out how to write well is those warrior tribes in Borneo, the ones who chop off the heads of their enemies and drink their blood in the belief that they thereby assimilate their powers. To write a book, you need to chop off a lot of heads – Dostoevsky’s head, Shakespeare’s head, Nietzsche’s head, if you’re into that, Don DeLillo’s head perhaps, Roberto Bolaño’s head, John Banville’s head – and guzzle a lot of blood. Then you will have the animal magic in you; you will be ready to charge into the jungle and fall without fear on your prey.
(c) Rob Doyle
Rob Doyle’s highly acclaimed debut novel, Here Are the Young Men, was first published in June 2014 by the Lilliput Press, and is now published internationally by Bloomsbury. His second book, This Is the Ritual – Fictions, will be published in spring of 2015 (Bloomsbury/Lilliput). Rob’s fiction, essays and criticism have appeared in the likes of The Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, Gorse, The Moth and The Penny Dreadful.
See Sarah Davis-Goff, Daniel Seery, Oona Fawley and Rob Doyle at the Red Line Book Festival in Contemporary Voices on Tuesday 14th October at 8.15pm at the Loose End Studio, Civic Theatre . Booking at Civic Theatre Box Office: