Often we start out as novice writers using a style that we hope resembles our favorite novelist. We think that if only we could write like he does, we’d be nothing short of great. By the time I was a high school junior I had read and admired many of William Faulkner’s books. I thought I understood his technique, his word choices, his quirky punctuation, and his choice of characters. I could have made a long list of attributes that distinguished his work from that of other writers.
It will be no surprise when I say that my prose style came to resemble his as closely as I could make it, at least in my own mind. At that time of my life I had never visited the South. There was no possible way I could evoke the background to properly capture Faulkner’s mood. But imitation is like taking baby steps, a necessary process, but one soon outdated. We have had our William Faulkner, now more than fifty years dead, and we don’t need any imitations. No matter how good they seem to be, they will always be no more than pale replicas. Imagine even a highly skilled painter making a copy of a van Gogh that had sold for $40 million. What is it worth, even if it’s so good that it’s distinguishable only by an expert? It might be valued at two or three hundred dollars.
By tone, one of my title words above, I mean your individual identity as expressed on the page. You might also call it voice. Like that of Faulkner, yours is unique, and it is composed of elements every bit as legitimate and worthwhile in their origins as his were. But for you to find and develop that voice, you must understand its roots, you must nurture them, and you must have the courage to speak with honesty. You must own all of your own history, even when it includes your demons as well as your strengths––perhaps especially then. Were the great writers you have read always working from the most successful moments of their lives? I would say that’s more like rarely the case. They worked from their pain and embarrassment, their frustration and longing. Embracing all the elements of your experience is the keystone of insight and true knowledge.
My fundamental point is that the uses of imitation have their natural limits. Put this process aside as quickly as you can, since even though it may make you feel like a writer, it impedes your task of knowing yourself well enough to speak from the heart, your heart, and in your own voice. Mimicking the voice of another writer is like wearing a mask on a first date. It makes your partner (in this case your reader) uneasy. Your self when concealed or veiled does not have the appeal of even your quirky self when revealed. This means with courage, with honesty, and with the conviction that people will want to hear what you have to say, even when it makes them uncomfortable.
Have we ever heard anyone described as one of the great imitators of all time? Probably not. Good imitators are clever, and they may be skillful, but having spent their lives being someone else, they are not well remembered once they have departed the scene and their borrowed identity. Nor are they ever great.
Consider this for a moment––who was William Faulkner imitating? There is an excellent reason why no answer comes to mind.
Adapted from A Writer’s Notebook: Everything I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Was Starting Out.
First posted at John Scherber’s Blog
John Scherber found his dream of culture, climate and cost of living crystalize in one place when he and his wife, Kristine moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico in 2007. After a career in Minnesota that combined writing and editing, cabinet making and furniture design, stints as a stock broker, a portrait and landscape painter, he joined the community of expatriates south of the border.
He is the author of:
San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart & A Writer’s Notebook: Everything I Wish SomeoneHad Told Me When I Was Starting Out
The Devil’s Workshop, Eden Lost, The Amarna Heresy
(The Murder in Mexico series)
Twenty Centavos, The Fifth Codex, Brushwork, Daddy’s Girl, Strike Zone, Vanishing Act, Jack and Jill, Identity Crisis, The Theft of the Virgin, The Book Doctor, The Predator
(The Townshend Vampire Trilogy)
And Dark My Desire & And Darker My Wrath
His office is outdoors on the second floor terrace of his house, where he can look out on 25 mile views over the reservoir into the Guanajuato mountains.
He has no regrets.
Author of San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart