Writing is a Communal Act

I recently finished Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones, and really, I could quote every chapter.

But I am going to start here, at chapter “Writing Is A Communal Act”.

Several friends and students have said to me that they avoid reading other books, when they are working on a manuscript, as they feel they are too easily influenced, and they are worried about moving away from their natural voice.

I have always found this interesting, as you are repeatedly told, as a writing student, to read. Read. Read. Read. Read.

In recent years, i.e. my children’s book obsession years, I have read a tonne of kids’ books, for all ages. I am reading for pleasure. I am reading for research. And I am reading out of curiosity.

I feel like, on some level, those words are seeping into me, and becoming part of my vocabulary. I do feel like I am absorbing other writerly voices. But I don’t think this a bad thing. I feel like every time I read, I learn something new about structure, plot or character.
My personal children’s book fund is my education fund. I could spend it on uni, but instead I spend it on books.

That’s why, when I read Natalie’s chapter on writing communally, it made a lot of sense.

“We always worry that we are copying someone else, that we don’t have our own style. Don’t worry. Writing is a communal act. Contrary to popular belief, a writer is not Prometheus alone on a hill of fire. We are very arrogant to think we alone have a totally original mind. We are carried on the backs of all writers who came before us. We live in the present with all the history, ideas, and soda pop of this time. It all gets mixed up in our writing.”

So, how do we read and read and read, and still maintain a fresh voice?

Read a lot
Although we might be influenced by some writers more than others, by reading widely we minimise the risk of emulating one particular person.

Edit ferociously
While our free writing exercises might emulate someone we read, we can hone our voice through editing. Keep coming back to the essence of what you are writing. Are you writing the truth, as you experience it? Or are you regurgitating a cliche, or someone else’s idea?

Free write
Several writers like Natalie Goldberg sing the high praises of a daily writing practice, and I have to agree – it is very beneficial to your writing.
Free writing is the act of writing freely, without thought, contemplation, restraint or self-criticism for a specified length of time. When you free write, you write from your unconscious.
Through regular free writing, we free our natural voice. Often, we write like we speak. And if we aren’t thinking much about the process itself, our natural voice has the chance to come through.

Read for your subconscious
All our reading and previous writing becomes part of our subconscious, like compost of our brains and imagination. The more we read, the richer our imaginative lives, and the richer our compost.

As a social person, writing communally appeals to me. We collect all the thoughts, ideas and experiences of everything that came before us. We can’t write in a vacuum, even if we tried. We are part of something wider.

We go out into coffee shops, libraries, parks and collect experiences as we write. We bounce ideas off friends. We attend courses. We read about how to write.

And as writers, we are sharers. We are creating works for others.

If that’s not communal, I don’t know what it.

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