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To Write Better, Be Careful What You Read

I’ve heard you are what you eat, which is a little scary considering my haphazard diet. I will say it’s well-balanced: I’m careful to balance every item that gets a plus, like salmon or oatmeal or avocadoes, with items that inexplicably rate a minus, like chips or ice cream or pie.

But I believe more strongly that you are what you read. I know this intuitively, because whatever I read comes out in my writing. Much as I like to think I have my own style, my writing gets clipped after The Sun Also Rises (Hemingway), long-winded after Hawaii (Michener) and cynical after Gone Girl (Flynn).

Turns out it’s not just my writing that changes. Recent research shows that when you identify with a literary character in a novel, you become more like the character.

According to a study published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, when you lose yourself in a work of fiction, your behavior and thoughts can evolve to match those of your favorite character. That could be good news if you bond with Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and not so good if you connect with Hannibal Lechter in Silence of the Lambs. (That’s not part of my balanced diet, by the way.)

Researchers Geoff Kaufman, a post-doctoral researcher at Tiltfactor Laboratories at Dartmouth College, and co-author Lisa Libby, an assistant professor at Ohio State University, say that when we read fiction, we vicariously experience our favorite character’s emotions, thoughts and beliefs. They call the process “experience-taking.”

Although the research found that experience-taking can lead to real changes in your life, the researchers can’t say how long-lasting those changes will be.

Kaufman believes that the fiction effect comes only with written works. When you see a movie, you simply watch the character; when you read a book, you can become the character.

So perhaps it’s worthwhile to think about the effect a book will have on you before you plunk down your bills to buy it or your butt to read it. I gave some thought to the novels and narrative nonfiction that have most influenced me over the years. Here are my top five:

1)      Sometimes A Great Notion, Ken Kesey: Yes, I know SAGN is not Kesey’s most well-known work. But this tale of a logging family in the coastal Oregon rainforest left me exalted—so much so that I turned the last page, flipped the book over and started again. Hank Stamper’s decision to steer logs to the mill downriver in defiance of the entire town still gives me chills. Character trait: Individualism. I’m no Hank but, as much as possible, I live life my own way.

2)      Touching the Void, Joe Simpson: Absolutely the most gripping book I’ve ever read, including any murder mystery that had me sneaking a peek at the last page. You know Simpson cheats death and lives to tell the tale—you’re holding the book in your hands. But I started reading over breakfast one morning; I ended up cancelling all work so I could read straight through. Character trait: Perseverance. Simpson shows us just how indomitable the human spirit can be even when the body faces every hardship.

3)      Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiesen and Pico Iyer: I read Snow Leopard when I was recovering from my own mountaineering accident. As much as anything, its gentle rhythm helped me heal. Matthiesen and field biologist George Schaller travel into the mountains of Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep and search for the exquisite snow leopard. But as a student of Zen Buddhism, Matthiessen also expands his understanding of reality, suffering, impermanence and beauty. Character trait: Patience. In the end, you know Matthiesen’s quest will be rewarded whether or not he sees the elusive cat.

4)      This House of Sky, Ivan Doig: I could live forever in Doig’s transcendent memoir set along Montana’s Rocky Mountain front.  The beauty of his prose—from the evocative title to the poignant last sentence—made me wonder how I can call myself a writer. Just looking at the book brings tears to my eyes. Character trait: Grit. The resilience embodied by these characters stems from a harsh and beautiful landscape and a profound devotion to family.

5)      Little Women, Louisa May Alcott: My childhood favorite, read over and over and over again. So it’s not surprising that heroine Jo is a tomboyish, would-be writer who simply can’t tame her rebellious spirit. Character trait: Optimism. Jo’s misgivings about her talent and eventual discovery of her true voice can inspire anyone who puts pen to paper.

Who are your favorite characters, either in novels or in nonfiction stories? And what traits did you learn from them? Please let us know in the comments here or on the Eclipse Communications Facebook page.

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