Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Great Pretender

When I was seventeen I stalked a music writer in Minneapolis. He spent his time attending punk shows, writing reviews for our local newspaper, and responding, wearily, to my emails. “For the last time,” he’d say, “what do you want to write about?”

“Punk shows,” I’d say. “In Minneapolis!”

Years have passed but I’m the same: still wanting to write what others have already written. I find myself imitating.
I may have good ideas, but never as good as that real genius over there. So I copy the geniuses, watching and nodding and mimicking their every gesture, just as an aerobics teacher is watched by her most desperate and sweating student.

It’s for this reason that people warn against reading while writing, but I can’t help it. I read Raymond Carver and suddenly all my characters become alcoholic and mean to their wives. A little Jane Austen turns them back into women. My flip-flopping is obvious and predictable. If Lorrie Moore writes about triplets, I want to write about triplets. If she writes about sheepdogs romping through Iceland— I, too, want to know such sheepdogs.

More disturbing is my impulse to copy other writers’ styles, aside from their content. After Amy Hempel I write dense sentences; after Dickens they’re pages long. Once, while studying “The Bible as Literature,” I began using the word “shall” in a story, frequently and without irony. Robert knows, I wrote, that he shall see her later, that she shall be wearing sandals. At these times I feel like a spineless writer. How can other literature influence me so easily?

Admiration, I think, is the problem. When you love a story, when a voice haunts and dazzles you, it takes up residence in your brain. It’s easy to go knocking on that residence when you’re unsure about your writing's direction or style, even though those borrowed ideas may be flagrantly inappropriate for the piece at hand. Imitating other work can also-- however falsely-- seem easier, since it means gliding on the details of an already-imagined world, rather than imagining it yourself.

Writers often talk about “finding your voice,” which means, I've realized, reaching a level of confidence in your writing interests that can withstand the torrent of reading wonderful—and very different—voices.

To counteract my Great Pretending, I have a little trick, which until now only Whitney has known. My trick is to read crap. A poor essay, a garbage story, a thoughtless poem. It’s shameful but true. Somehow scanning just a page of something I don’t like, that I don’t admire, makes me want to write something different and better. I forget chasing someone else's genius, and my own voice gets pushed into motion. In short: I stop pretending.

~Sonya Larson

1 comment:

Dan said...

Well done Sonya. Way to own up to it. You speak what we all think.