When Reading Leaves A Bad Taste In Your Mouth

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“Milk takes on the flavor of what it’s next to in the refrigerator.”

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, you’ve undoubtedly read that quote or something like it more than once. I’d heard it long before King made it known because, like him, I grew up with a mother born and raised in Maine; way up Maine in “The County” –Aroostook, for those of you not in the know — about as far as you can go without becoming Canadian.

As a child, I incessantly nagged my parents to move to Maine. My grandparents were there — well, Pop was there; the one grandparent in four who actually paid attention to me — as well as a plethora of cousins my own age. Back home in New York, I had a grandmother who apparently hated everything in the world except her son-in-law and her boxer dogs, a handful of disinterested aunts and uncles, and cousins all vastly older than me. (When you’re a kid, a gap of 6+ years is vast. We won’t get into the 12+ year difference between me and my sisters.)

But back to the milk.

The saying works because it’s true. Store some chopped onions next to your carton of milk if you don’t believe me. If you’re a parent, you’ve seen the phenomena in your children once they begin school. They go off that first morning, your little kindergarten angel, only to return as Satan having, in the space of a few hours, picked up all sorts of noxious behaviors.

Where I find the truth of that quote applies to me is in the books I read. Assuming they write long and hard enough, each writer develops his or her own voice … or should. If not, there’s a real problem that needs addressing. That being said, writers also “borrow” from other writers.

We’re not talking plagiarism, which is a much bigger issue and should never-ever-ever happen. What I mean is that as you read something, you may find bits and pieces of that other writer’s style slipping into your own work. And that’s okay, so long as you don’t lose yourself in the process. Personally, I don’t mind a dash of Harlan Ellison or Barbara Hambly, Terry Pratchett or Stephen King sprinkled over the top of what I write. Hell, they–and several other writers–have been some of my best teachers on this long road of learning the craft. (You do read, don’t you? I mean something more than blogs or the newspaper? As a writer you must, and if you don’t, shame on you.)

But sometimes that unconscious tendency to borrow backfires.

I’m reading a book right now. It’s new, recently out, and no I won’t give you the title or author. It’s good … I think … although I swing between viewing the protagonist an independent woman and a chronic whiner. But the thing is, the damn story is bringing me down, man. It’s delivering no creative spark, no impetus to go at my own work with renewed verve. Instead, it’s draining me of the urge to write at all. Worse, it’s making me feel old and that, goddammit, is not acceptable. So I’ll be returning the book to the library unfinished, yet to even reach the heroine’s basic conundrum (assuming there is one).

Because, see, I can’t afford to take on that sort of flavor.

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