When I was a young writer, I did what a lot of other young writers do and looked to those writers I most admired to guide me to where I wanted to go. That was the theory, anyway, but mostly I just imitated. This is somewhat useful to learn about form, but only for a short time. Eventually, both in the kind of stories you tell and how you tell them, you have to go your own way, and the sooner you do so the better. I reached a point, in fact, where I simply stopped reading other fiction writers. If a writer had a distinctive and compelling voice I inevitably found myself parroting him or her when I set to my own work. The result was some Frankenstein amalgamation of our voices, as clumsy and unattractive as the monster himself.
Because of this job I am reading fiction again, and I happy to report I seem to have inoculated myself against the affects other voices. More to the point, I am now able to learn from these writers. For instance, at the time I was reading Karl Marlantes’s debut masterpiece Matterhorn, I was finishing the last draft of m own novel. Matterhorn follows a platoon of American soldiers through the jungles of Viet Nam. Marlantes did as good a job as I have ever encountered of rendering the relentless physical discomfort of the soldiers. The rain, the heat, and the humidity became like a musical score against which the action was played out.
My novel wasn’t set in Viet Nam, but my characters were out of doors and they were travelling. That it was cold in my book instead of hot as it was in his didn’t matter. What he showed me was not how to render cold or hot, but that if you do so thoughtfully and purposefully the results can be effective. Until reading Matterhorn, I avoided this sort of description in my fiction because I thought it simply bogged down the story as the writer constantly reminded the reader where the characters were standing. I don’t think that anymore.
Marlantes was like a track athlete who cracked some time barrier that I, at least, had never broken. I do not need to study his training regimen or copy his running style to reach that time myself—that it can be done is enough. This is all humans have ever needed. Once the dike of limitation is breached, we flood through in masses.