Why reading keeps writers on track – Anneliese Mackintosh

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By Anneliese Mackintosh

When I was thirteen, I went hiking in the Chilterns. All sorts of things happened on that school trip: the boys threw cow pats at our tents; the girls went to pee in groups of three. But there was one thing that sticks in my mind above all else.♥

It was the last day of the hike, and I ached everywhere. My boots were pinching my feet and I’d managed to accumulate seven blisters. I was the youngest in my group, and I was lagging. Red-faced and almost ready to give up, I sat on a tree stump and got out my emergency rations.

Our teachers had advised us to bring a packet of raw jelly (Jell-o) with us, and told us to eat a couple of cubes when we needed a boost. So far, I had gagged at the thought of consuming this gelatinous snack, but now, in my desperation, I opened the packet and bit off two surprisingly chewy, strawberry-flavoured cubes. The effect the jelly had on me was instant. I could feel the glucose being absorbed into my bloodstream, making my cells buzz. OK, I’m not a scientist, but I knew that whatever mysterious processes were happening inside me, the jelly was making me feel good. Awake. Alive. Giving me the energy to go on with my hike, fresh and new.

I’ve come to think of the writing process as a bit like going on a long hike. The characters accompanying me do unexpected things, and it can be hard to keep up with them. Putting one word after the other becomes exhausting, even painful. Regular breaks help, but if I’m not feeding myself properly, my reserves will be depleted. So along the way, I crack open a book or two, gobbling up the intellectual and artistic calories, and the literature nourishes me like a much-needed cube of jelly.

Can I get the present tense to work in this story? Jenny Offill offers me a taste of how it can be done. How do I create a compelling epistolary novel? Maria Semple hands me a perfect example on a plate. How do I write a manual for navigating grief? Lorrie Moore feeds me new ways of using the second person. I can pinpoint the exact moments in my works where I started reading Maggie Nelson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Miriam Toews. I can see the surge that each new writer has given me, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to consume their sentences.

There have been periods in my life when I’ve been apathetic about reading. There’s no contemporary literature worth looking at, said a self-absorbed and quite ignorant voice in my teens. I haven’t got time to read / Reading is inferior to writing / I can’t read while I’m working on a book or I’ll get distracted, various other ill-advised voices have whined at me over the years. But as I’ve grown older, and I’ve realised time and again what a profound effect reading has upon my capacities as a human being and as a writer, I have made time for it in my daily routine just as I make time to eat, to breathe, to sleep. And, in spite of the blisters, I keep trudging on.

Anneliese Mackintosh’s debut short story collection, Any Other Mouth, was published by Freight Books in 2014, and it won the Green Carnation Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize, Saltire Society’s First Book Award, and the Saboteur Award, and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Anneliese’s short fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Scotland, and published in magazines and anthologies. So Happy It Hurts, her debut novel, is out now, published by Jonathan Cape. Anneliese has a PhD in Creative Writing.


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