Back when I was young and foolish – about twenty minutes ago – I thought that the best way to vaunt into the exclusive echelons of “serious writer” status was to mimic The Best. So I tried sounding like John Steinbeck, Anton Chekov, Charles M. Schulz and company. Well, okay. Maybe not Chekov. But every time I sat down to write I’d think, “How would Hemingway or Jane Austen or Charlie Brown approach this?”
It was one of the dumbest things I ever tried. (Not counting the time we poured gorilla glue into ‘Steel Neil’s’ football cleats just before the big homecoming game or the time I left Reese’s peanut butter cups inside the tent in the middle of bear country. It was unintentional, honest!)
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that’s not quite the case in the writing biz. We all have authors we return to again and again, like favorite relatives or another slice of raspberry white chocolate cheesecake with extra hot fudge.
Nothing wrong with that. Ditto studying great literature and technique. But trying to mimic another writer, imitate their rhythm, pacing, or style is like trying to nail Jell-o to a tree. It can’t be done and wearing raspberry goo all over your face is just plain silly.
Say It Your Way
Let’s face it. You’re one of a kind (you can take that any way you want). No one sees, hears, experience, processes or records life like you do. What you may think is insanely funny, for example, others may see as …. not. (Trust me on this one.) Another writer may describe the proverbial “dark and stormy night” as “dark and stormy” while you may call it “a hundred-year monsoon blowing from the bowels of oblivion in a coal miner’s shaft at midnight during a lunar eclipse.” (But I sincerely hope not.)
The bottom line here: Your writing voice in unique. No one else can express what you can, so say it your way. Besides, relying on someone else’s style or approach is a crutch. It reveals a lack of confidence and imagination. Or skill. Maybe all of the above. It’ll also suck the life out of your own writing style and keep you from finding your own voice.
True, developing your own unique writing style and voice may seem daunting. That’s because it is. But there are no short-cuts. Part of what makes a great writer great is that they’re willing to stumble and fall and get up again and keep marching. Consider:
- – William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected by twenty publishers.
- – Commenting on The Diary of Anne Frank, one “genius” sniffed, “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”
- – Book one of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was rejected by a dozen publishers.
- – Ms. L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by 26 publishers before finally breaking into print. It went on to win the 1963 Newberry Medal.
And so on. Writing is hard work. It requires insight, sensitivity, growth, maturity and discipline. As you grow as a writer, you may collect stacks of rejection letters and unsolicited “critiques” from barley literate peasants who wouldn’t recognize quality writing if it walked up to them on a street and shook hands (trust me on this one, too). Don’t despair. With practice, you’ll learn to sort through the “advice” that’s worth heeding, and to smile politely when someone introduces himself as a “writer” because he’s invested nearly twenty full minutes in the craft.
It Takes Time
Learning to express yourself on paper and engage an audience takes time. Do you think I became this brilliant overnight?! Not! So be patient. Keep plugging. Practice. Expand and experiment. If non-fiction has you worn to a crackly crisp, try poetry or an adventure novel or short stories. If you get really, really good at fiction, run for Congress.
Whatever you do, be willing to learn and accept constructive advice. As you study, struggle and practice, you’ll build writing muscle. Stamina. Depth. Perspective. Clarity and originality.
Learn from your mistakes. Take a class at the local college. Enter some writing contests. Ask a trusted friend or family member to read your work and provide honest feedback.
There are no short cuts, no “silver bullets” to finding your voice as a writer. The instances in which a body falls out of bed and wakes up in “serious writer” territory occur about as often as the last Ice Age.
Free tip: A generous dose of humility doesn’t hurt, either.
So, dust off that keyboard, warm up those fingers and get going. You may have to look awhile and exercise some mental muscles you didn’t know you had, but growing your own writing voice is worth it. The best way is the Nike way: Just do it!
Have you found your writing voice? Who or what helped you along the way?