I am currently reading Slaughterhouse Five, arguably Vonnegut’s most famous novel about Billy Pilgrim, a time-travelling ex-soldier who claims he was abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. If this is the result of significant amounts of farting around them I’m all for it, but as always I am reading with my editing head on, wishing I had a pen to circle, underline and make notes in the margin. It is a writer’s curse to find reading for pleasure a difficult task, with that inner sponge waiting to absorb something new, or that inner critic wanting to change and improve, both constantly sitting there on the lookout for any kind of willing text. I have been known to marvel at the instructions on a hand dryer, it was so lyrically written. So it goes.
There are many passages in Vonnegut’s masterpiece that remind me of stories I’ve read by my students. Stories I’ve criticised. For example:
‘When she was gone, Billy opened the drapes and was no wiser as to what was outside. The view was still blocked by a venetian blind, which he hoisted clatteringly. Bright sunlight came crashing in.’
I would have gone to town on that paragraph. Do we need this level of detail? How relevant is this to your story? Try not to over explain. Avoid adverbs. How can sunlight crash? And so it goes.
Part of criticising another’s work is actually questioning their decisions. I’m not a dictator who expects my students to follow my every instruction (a control freak, yes, but I haven’t formed my own private army just yet), and I know that a writer’s response to a suggestion may be to reject it. But a question requires consideration on the part of the writer. It requires thought, and that thought together with their reply becomes part of their decision making process.
In addition to this, there is a question that often goes back to the root of why they started writing the piece in the first place: What are you trying to achieve here? Understanding the writer’s vision will fundamentally affect the criticism and suggestions that I make. It will help me see where they are coming from, and then I can see where they want to go and maybe how they can get there. I guess it’s a bit like those instructions you get on restaurant websites, the page titled How to find us by car — you can only find the destination if you know what road you’ve come in on. So during this hypothetical conversation with my student, the question Who has influenced you here? will probably get a mention, and after all my queries about unnecessary detail and the physics of crashing sunlight, the answer may well be Kurt Vonnegut, and my response would have to be Oh, ok then. That’s pretty good.
Of course the potential scuppering of this theory is if I haven’t actually read the writer or book that has influenced the student. Then I have to confess ignorance (a lot of teachers are reluctant to do this apparently, they think it undermines their authority or something), and if circumstances permit I’ll pootle off to do some research and get back to them with some proper feedback. This not only makes me feel like I’m doing my job properly (and fee-paying students hopefully feel like they’re getting value for money), but I’m also discovering a new writer for myself, and that’s never a bad thing.
At the beginning of each semester we do have a quick conversation on favourite writers as a kind of getting-to-know-you exercise. Interestingly, most of the writers that come up are contemporary. There are always the dependable YA writers such as JK Rowling, Lucy Christopher and Stephanie Meyer, the fantasy contingent including Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, a smattering of Stephen King and writers with an interest in realism and modern issues, such as Jodi Picoult.
Sometimes they’ll mention someone I’ve never heard of which will get me scurrying for my pen, but the classic writers rarely get a mention. I’ve always thought this was because they’ve spent their GCSEs and A-levels dissecting the classics to death, but maybe this isn’t the full picture. I wonder if it isn’t more to do with age. When you’re young you want to do things your own way, you want to create something new and striking, something that will change the world’s view on a subject. It is irrelevant who changed the world a hundred years ago, so you seek out who is trying to do it now, and when you find him or her it is like someone holding a light to show you the way. You have all the time in the world to use that light to guide your own path and show people you have something new and exciting to tell them too.
And then, in the blink of an eye, you reach your forties. You’ve read hundreds of books, some of which have influenced you as a writer, some not, but hopefully you still want to change the world, or at least show it something different. The past inevitably becomes more of a pull because you’ve got as many years behind you as you still have left to live (I’m ever the optimist), and looking back doesn’t seem so irrelevant any more. The classics have a habit of surging into contemporary life to show us how universal stories can be with recurring themes of ambition, loss and hope, and characters that still mean something to us. The Great Gatsby is the most current example of this. So maybe it’s actually how old we are and where we are in our lives that dictate the books we choose to read, the way they may affect us, and the answer we give when we’re asked the question, Who is your favourite writer?
Slaughterhouse Five is considered a modern classic, and I’m not sure yet what kind of impact it is going to have on my own writing, if any. But it has made me think about who influenced me when I was young and in the earliest stages of my writing experience. I’ll ponder this over the coming week and write about it in my next post, but in the meantime tell me about the writers that have influenced you, past or present…