Author, artist, writer and teacher Peter Selgin, Winner of the 2007 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and author of 179 Ways to Save a Novel, a must-read for all writers, shares his insights on that all-important element of writing - style.
AA: It could be said of writers that we are what we read. But how does a writer select, develop and assimilate style?
PS: I think it's so important for writers to find their own, unique influences. I myself have done this by combing the stacks and shelves of libraries and used book stores. The best-seller lists I avoid, since their influence is everywhere. The same goes for the classics, though it's important to have read the classics, if only to know where you fit into the 4,000 year-old conversation known as literature.
My method goes something like this: I scan the shelves for spines that intrigue me-either with their titles, just because something about their shape or even the color or texture calls out to me. Those books I pull from the shelves and open to their first pages while trying not to read any cover matter or learn the name of the publisher, or anything else that might in some way bias my response to the actual writing. I read the first paragraph. If I like it, I read a few more. Since I can only allow myself so many books to borrow or buy, I exercise very strict standards in choosing.
By this means, I've discovered some of my all-time favorite books and authors, including Emmanuel Bove, whose now thoroughly forgotten first novel My Friends begins:
"When I wake up, my mouth is open. My teeth are furry: it would be better to brush them in the evening, but I am never brave enough. Tears have dried at the corners of my eyes. My shoulders do not hurt any more. Some stiff hair covers my forehead. I spread my fingers and push it back. It is no good: like the pages of a new book it springs up and tumbles over my eyes again."
And Hans Falada's The Drinker, which starts out:
"Of course I have not always been a drunkard. Indeed it is not very long since I first took to drink."
And The Dreams of Reason, by Xavier Domingo:
Seventh year of the war for independence in Algeria. Seventh year of living in Paris. Seven years of sleepwalking from urinal to urinal. Seven years of unconsciousness, of being half asleep and idiotic and happy. They are not seven years in hell, no, nor seven years in purgatory. They are seven years in limbo. Innocent, stupid, and cruel. Like a cat or a small boy.
You see why I've wanted to make these authors mine? Anyway, the great books that we discover entirely on our own are the ones that form us the most, the forgotten ones, the ones no one else is reading, the ones we bond with most meaningfully, whereas anyone can read the bestsellers.
AA: What's the difference between style and voice?
PS: A writer's style covers all of his work, while he may alter his narrative voice from project to project to suit each one. Voice is subordinate to style.
Also editor of Alimentum literary magazine, Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons and Life Goes to the Movies. To learn more about his books and classes, visit Peter Selgin, and the essential blog, Your First Page.