Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

We’ve all got our favorite authors. The ones we’ll vigorously defend, especially when some fool sucks her teeth and says, “I so totally HATE [your favorite author]. His/her stuff is drivel.”

To which you respond, “WHAT?! Are you out of your mind? Were you raised by mentally unstable wolves with bad taste or something? How can you possibly believe [my favorite author] is anything but awesome?”

And then the fool shrugs and says, “Meh.”

Then you say something ill-advised. And then this tacky fool who clearly has ZERO CLASS says something equally ill-advised, perhaps about your mother’s moral laxity, and the next thing you know, you’re taking off your earrings and telling the nearest bystander, “Hold my purse.” That’s when you both start pulling each other’s hair weaves while everyone is standing around chanting fight, fight, fight.


Your favorite author is obviously someone you like, but is your favorite author someone who you attempt to write like? Probably, yes. A little. Or maybe a lot.

I would say that there were two authors who I made an attempt to write like. Not in the sense that they had a very particular style of writing that I copied. Like. They used. A lot. Of. Staccato. Sentences. Or. Conversely, huge blocks of impenetrabletextthatallruntogether. It was more their sensibility, which, by the way, ranks slightly higher to me on the writing hierarchy than “voice.” In other words, what they said was more important to me than how they said it.

The reason I copied them was that I felt like, OK, this is good writing, so this is what I should aspire to do myself. But there seems to be this odd irony to emulating another writer to the point of imitating them. They inspire you, sure, which strengthens you in some ways, but attempts to copy another writer weaken you as well. First of all, nobody wants to be the poor man’s version of anyone else, right? And even if you were a near perfect facsimile of your favorite writer, no one will ever believe the best Elvis imitator is better than the original. So you’re doomed to failure in any event.

Everyone complains that when a book becomes super popular, there are a million copycat projects that seem to follow. I guess that’s because we don’t know what to do with influence sometimes. The simplest and most obvious approach to it is to copy it. Which almost always fails. But absorbing influence, processing it, and then evolving it into something new takes a long time. Longer than most publishing trend cycles certainly.

So. What to do, what to do? In one sense, you can’t help but be swayed by the authors you love, on the other hand, you cannot ever hope to find your own voice unless you step out of their creative shadow. I’m curious to know how you’ve handled that “tyranny of influence” thang in your own work.

(Oh, my, this is such an artsy post I’m doing today. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I really gotta lay off the absinthe and Paris Review back issues.)

By the way, I’m not going to tell you who those two writers are who I attempted to imitate. No, I certainly am not. See, I just got my weave re-done, and I don’t want to ruin it in the event you roll your eyes when I disclose their names.