I joined a writer's group that met in the back room of a gloomy café about five years ago. We gathered every week, carefully critiquing each other's pages late into the night. Often the café closed before we were done, giving me a chance to hear the barista, a tough-looking guy with tattoos and piercings, belt out superb renditions of Limp Bizkit songs.
The group was lead by two gray-haired writers named Rino and Mike. On several occasions, they would both tell me I needed to read more Proust. They did not tell anyone else this. Just me. In a comment that I took as a compliment then, but which I don't take as a compliment now, they told me I was trying to do what Proust did.
So, I tried to read Proust.
For those of you who don't know, Marcel Proust was a French writer who published in the early 1900's. Many critics consider him the best novelist of all time. His epic, translated as In Search Of Lost Time, is roughly 3,200 pages long with about 2000 characters in it. He published it in seven volumes, the first of which is titled "Swann's Way".
So, I got "Swann's Way" from the library. I read about a hundred pages of it, almost all of which were about a young boy not wanting to go to sleep. I thought, "That's a lot of words to spend on a young boy not going to sleep." I gave up.
A little later, another teacher of mine read the novel I was working on and told me to read Proust. I gave it another try. I got to about page 200, when the boy had finished discussing his sleeping habits and was now taking a walk around the neighborhood. I gave up.
I got a job after finishing graduate school and ended up having a commute that took longer than an hour. This was my chance! I got a copy of "Swann's Way" on audio. I played it during my drive. I was reminded of the sleeping and the walking. I went back to radio after about a week.
I read other books, many books, and my writing was improving, but I always had this nagging feeling that I should get back to Proust. Finally, I had the chance to come and live in Paris for six months -- that's where I currently am now. So, I tried Proust again, and this time...I thought it was okay.
I can definitely admire the guy. The book is funny at times and I did laugh out loud on several occasions. But, I read all of "Swann's Way" and came out of it thinking, "This guy's good, but he's no Tolstoy."
I went back to my writing. That's when I noticed something. Without my permission, Proust had changed my writer's voice. Instead of my usual depressed, clichéd work, I was noticing things in my story I had never noticed before. I was describing scenes more accurately, taking the time to be clear instead of reaching for the easiest summarizing detail I could come up with. My characters were more multidimensional: they were silly and serious and mad and paranoid. I even tried to be funny, something I never dared to do before. What was going on?
I realize now that I had stumbled upon my Broccoli Writer. Proust was the guy that I needed to read, not for pleasure, but for my writer's health. Though I didn't particularly like him -- and to be fair, I did like him a little -- reading Proust drastically improved my writing in a matter of weeks. I feel like I have a unique voice now that I didn't have before. And, I owe it to Proust and my mentors who encouraged me to read him.
So, who are your Broccoli Writers? Who are those authors who manage to help you see yourself more clearly and help you to improve your writing, even if you don't like them?