The brain does get full. Over the last two months I’ve managed to cram countless pieces of academic and literary writing into my head, British and American lit from Caedmon to Hawthorne. In the process I’ve lost the ability to retain proper nouns. I can usually remember my wife’s name, but to be safe I’m just calling her “wife” until I can think clearly again. Now that I’ve completed the coursework for my degree, I hope my brain starts to heal and those parts of my memory that once held basic information return to full health. I also hope my brain retains some of the works I’ve read.
There is something to be said for all that reading and writing, even if it’s blitzed reading and formal writing. That sort of work stretches my reservoir of ideas, characters, and styles. I doubt I’ll emulate Shakespeare any time soon, but there are some questions that rise from reading Merchant of Venice that may shape conflicts in stories I write later. Perhaps something worth trying is the “what if” question. For example, I can take Merchant and ask, “What if Antonio was compelling Shylock’s conversion to save him in some way?” That might lead to a story. Likewise, Melville’s “Bartleby” provokes the question, “What if Bartleby is ‘preferring not to’ for a reason?” That could become a story.
Reading old books, plays, and poems is not especially useful in a formal sense. I don’t want to emulate either Melville or Shakespeare in my writing style — I hope no one ever tries to copy Melville. But they, and many of the others I read, offer insights into plot, character, and subject matter that open up conversations for folks like us. Try reading Robinson Crusoe without feeling compelled to write your own “shipwrecked” story. I’m not recommending you write a gimmick novel like Robinson Crusoe and Werewolves. I wouldn’t even argue for stealing and revisioning these public-domain works, although that’s produced Wicked and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, among others. I’m saying that Crusoe and Antonio and Bartleby — or whatever characters you encounter in your reading — should be allowed to mix with the characters in your head, the ones drawn from personal history and the work place. Let them mingle and see what happens when they become part of you. When my brain works again, I hope to find that these characters provide me with richer characters and new stories.