Curt Eriksen is the author of A Place of Timeless Harmony, a Kirkus Reviews’ Best Indie Debut Novel of 2018. Curt’s short fiction, novel extracts, poetry and political and literary commentary have appeared in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, India and Spain, in numerous print and online journals, including Blackbird, Rosebud, and Writer’s Digest. An excerpt from his novel-in-progress was recently published at failbetter.com.
Scribo, Ergo Scriptorem: The Existential Imperative of Writing
by Curt Eriksen
The major challenge I’m currently facing in producing new work, the revision of a novel, is that of time. Given that the writing of a novel is a process of highly selective accretion, tempered by subtraction, it takes time—and plenty of it—to finally finish anything.
When deeply involved with something, as I am now, I write with a certain urgency. I’m not in a hurry to finish, just anxious to continue working towards completion.
It’s my belief that what makes me a writer is not anything I’ve written, or the fact that I’ve spent my entire adult life writing, but the act of writing itself. It’s only so long as I am engaged in that act of writing that I am actually a writer.
But the amount of time I can dedicate, almost daily, to writing, is of necessity limited by other obligations. And not only that, there seems to be a limited yet always variable amount of energy available for writing. And yet almost everything else I do in a day revolves, in some ways, around the task of writing and the current project.
Like most writers, I am always reading, even while writing, several books at a time, in a variety of genres. These works feed my writing by providing me with information, inspiration, encouragement, ideas, and clues to that which I am trying to figure out via the process of writing.
I carefully choose what I read while actively working in a bid to provide myself—and my work—with the right “nutrients.” The nonfiction I read can be related to the work-in-progress by providing me with factual knowledge relevant to the setting or any intellectual or historical or societal elements in the novel. If I’m dipping into a book—or a couple of books—of poetry, their authors usually inform or relate in some way to the mood of my work-in-progress.
The fiction I read while writing fiction must interact with my own work in a sort of dialogue. This “dialogue” is very important, and seldom direct. I can’t read other writers whose voices are too singular or loud in any way—writers I might be interested in but with whom I can’t have the literary conversation that I need to have while actively working on my own project.
This might sound more restrictive than it is. I’ve read most of the books I’ve read while writing, and I’ve worried sometimes about the influence of other writers on my work. But, although I can often recall what particular work I was reading while working on specific sections of my own novels, I doubt very much that a reader would observe any direct correlation or obvious influence.
So, I guess I don’t allow other writers to get in my way, but instead co-opt them and their work for my own purposes. I use what I read to fuel my writing. This might sound silly, but it has often happened, for example, that I’ve wondered about the use of a particular word in my own work and then, that very night, when sitting down to read before going to sleep, I have seen that same word in the text of the book I am reading, and I take this as a confirmation of my decision to use that same word in the context of my own narrative.
That is a concrete example of the interaction between my work and that of the fiction writers I read while writing, but their influence on my own work is usually more mysterious and vague, affecting—confirming and reinforcing—the mood or attitude of my own work. It’s especially on this level of attitude that I seek a correspondence between my work-in-progress and the fiction I am reading.
As far as “stealing” goes, I’m all for it. I take from other writers anything I can use, anything my own work might need, anything that will improve my story. A writer like myself reads less for pleasure than for education, though learning is pleasurable and so is reading.
I am constantly taking mental notes on what I read. I consider the techniques I observe—what is happening on the page, and what I can see the writer doing behind the scenes—and try to learn from the example of others. But I don’t steal sentences and paragraphs, and I don’t believe I’ve ever come close to committing plagiarism.
I have pilfered images and very particular takes on a subject, or angles from which something might be seen, and even pairs of words sometimes. But these get buried in thousands of other words, all of which are mine. And I always seek to make anything I “steal” my own by freely modifying and fitting it into the web and weave, into the very fabric, of my own narrative.