I used to be super-snobby about reading “literature.” I loved college-type literature, realistic stories with a lot of quirkiness in the prose, the type grad students love to obsess over. David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Flannery O’Connor, and anyone else in this cadre.
These were literary. Why would I bother with lesser material? How could that make me anything but worse at writing?
Then the great, innovative writer Ben Marcus spoke at the college where I got my writing degree and told us how much science books from the 19th century had informed his early work. And another writer read from her suite of poems that was entirely based on informational plaques in museums. Then I read that Donald Barthelme, Mr. Fancy Avant-Garde short story writer, cited the adventure and romance novels as key influences.
Sure, the great writers read other “great writers” (i.e. those that the academic and literary establishment have crowned as “literary”). But every writer does that. You need to find something that only you will stoop to, something that other artists are too pretentious to embrace.
Here’s a shortcut to “finding your voice”: find the quirky things you obsess over that no one else gives a damn about. Whatever short circuits your “finer sensibilities” and makes you a joyful little kid again. For the great short story writer George Saunders this was Steve Martin and Monty Python. For award-winning director P.T. Anderson it’s Adam Sandler movies.
But here’s the important thing: keep it trashy.
Devote yourself for at least one week to whatever American cheese, Coors Lite-type crappiness that for some reason you adore. The objective is to shut up that inner asshole who thinks he knows what “good writing” is (he doesn’t).
Find something weird that turns the lights on for you. The type of stuff no one would recommend that you read. Not even the Amazon recommender robots.
Then just read the living hell out of it, until your guard’s completely down.
Put away the fair-trade pour-over. Get out the Folgers.
No one knows what “art” really is, or how it’s made. So, forget what you know and embrace your inner philistine.
Then, get out your chewed up Ticonderoga pencil, and create something that makes you feel that same rush of joy.