The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

So Sue Me, Harper Lee, Or, On Yearning To Be Natural

by Denis Taillefer

There are stages in a writer's apprenticeship, I'm sure, and I can tell you which I'm struggling to enter. Or at least where I'm trying to be more consistent.

Harper Lee once said in an interview with Roy Newquist: 'There are people who write, but I think they're quite different from people who must write. People who write for reward by way of recognition or monetary gain don't know what they're doing. They're in the category of those who write; they are not writers. Writing is simply something you must do.'

Ouch. So in which do I fit in? Well, I'm not naive enough to expect great monetary gains from writing fiction, but I need to believe that one day I will have a reading audience of more than one. And judging from the fact I started writing but a few years ago, and that words don't spew from my keyboard as readily as it does for some, for now, it's safe to say I'm just someone who enjoys creating through writing.

Does it matter which category I fit in? Maybe it does. It might explain why I bounce from genre to genre; over-the-top comedies, scifi, dramas; and why I've treated the publishing of stories like collecting bubblegum cards. Even if some of those cards were not what you would call, 'rare collectibles'.

And then there is imitation. Most of us have gone to books to stimulate creativity. We will read an opening paragraph to get anchored onto a voice or style. Or we will borrow from a theme or plot to get our creative pump primed.

For a little justification, let us try on these quotes for size:

'Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed from one another.' – Voltaire

Or how about Nietzsche: 'Many a man fails as an original thinker simply because his memory is too good.' Oh, he was smart, that one.

Or maybe this quote on creativity, by Jamie Buckingham: 'Imitation is at least 50 percent of the creative process. The growing child learns by imitating.' Whoa. The growing child? I guess this last quote is not so supportive unless you believe you are a growing writer.

As a growing writer, I've done more than just peek at the greats for inspiration. I've mimicked styles and stories, and even collected a few bubblegum credits in doing so.

Guess whose style I'm copying, here: 'An Idea for a play: A man swallows a harmonica in a skidoo accident and becomes the laughing stock of the village until he discovers perfect pitch. Then the Toronto Blue Jays draft him as their closing pitcher but when he is sent to war, he again is the brunt of scorn as his every breath exposes the platoon's position. Much potential here--needs a lot of work, though.' – Oh, nevermind. It's early Woody Allen, silly.

So I've felt somewhat proud of publishing even these imitations. That feeling of success gave me courage to go on. But it seems to me now that if what I write is not my own style, then it is not totally genuine. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it: 'There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion.' Or as Liza Minnelli said on this week's showing of Inside The Actors' Guild: 'It's better to be a first-grade rank of yourself, than a second-grade rank of somebody else.'

It's time to move on to the next stage, to write more from the gut and to find my own voice and style, and to somehow be more natural. And if that doesn't work, then perhaps Harper Lee was right in saying I'm not a 'real' writer. Time will tell, but I do hope to prove her wrong.

And for encouragement, maybe I'll paste these words by Pascal, up by my monitor: 'When we encounter a natural style, we are always surprised and delighted, for we thought to see an author and found a man.'


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

This really made me think, Denis, that so much of the pull to imitate is the writer's lack of confidence in himself. We fear that what we have to say isn't nearly as meaningful as what others have to say. That old self-esteem problem!

Wed May 10, 11:00:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Denis said...

Oh yes, well said. 'Tis a self-esteem problem, for sure. And that need to gauge oneself in order to grow, which is so tough. Thanks, Tricia.

Wed May 10, 11:21:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Patricia said...

Denis, this is exceptional, you are original, you are funny and sad and smart and whether you think so or not, you have a style and wit that is yours and yours alone, you're a gem, just fly baby...xoxo

Thu May 11, 01:10:00 am GMT-4  
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