This past summer I was reading a pamphlet-like book, Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov (which I highly recommend). There was no date for the publication; I therefore looked up the book online at the site of the vendor but, alas! I found no publication date. I figured that the authors (Bunin, Gorky, and Kuprin) must have composed these charming but intriguing recollections sometime soon after the death of Chekhov in 1904.
My eyes happened to glance on the website at other selections which supposedly might interest me. One book was entitled How to Write Like Chekhov.
Hmmm, I thought. I can understand learning from his technique and studying his style, even gaining inspiration from his gifted vision. But who would want to write like someone other than oneself?
Evidently, there is a market for books for people who want to write like other people, namely famous authors of the past. Chekhov was one, Hemingway another. Customer reviews of the Chekhov-emulation book complained that it missed the mark or was for hack writers or didn’t really show how to write like Chekhov.
Anton Chekhov offered free advice about literary technique to many young writers. Some of it was endearingly honest. Always, he was gracious. His intent, I believe, was to kindly encourage any writer to write WELL, but not to write like him, even though his writing was superb.
I thought back to my days as a student of literature and writing and I recalled wanting very much to be able to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald, but with my own mastery and my own wondrous style. I knew that this accomplishment would take time, and that some of that time would be devoted to developing as a person, an individual in my own right. It never occurred to me to try to imitate or copy the writing of another writer whom I admired. It did occur to me to leave those authors alone and to develop my own “voice.”
Until I was well into my thirties, I lacked a firm narrative voice. It was a symptom of a nascent writer, and I did not like it one bit. I could write solid, scintillating paragraph after paragraph of dialogue and description of all sorts, but narration, well, it was weak, very weak. It was embarrassingly weak. I wanted to be a mature writer before I was a fully mature individual. Rather illogical, yes?
It was during a period of time while I was growing deeply in wisdom and gaining insight from that wisdom that Louis L’Amour came to the rescue. With some measure of excitement, I learned from him how to “tell a tale” with full narrative gusto. Perhaps my problem was that I simply had not fully believed in my own talent!
Belief in your own abilities is crucial to achieving anything. A person can fail at any task, job, or profession if his or heart is not in it. Singer extraordinaire Ella Fitzgerald said, “Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong.”
If your writing comes from your heart, and if that heart is good, you will succeed. One crucial rule is to never try to write like someone else. (Even parody must have your own flavor.) You will never be anyone but yourself, and, as the Bard said, “To thine own self be true.”
What if you do not like your own writing? Discover why you do not like it. Perhaps an aspect is unpleasant or inferior. Only by working with your thoughts can you arrive at the best way to express them. It is a matter of shaping your way of saying what you have to say. In that way, you develop “style.”
What if you have a “shaky” voice? Work to improve it. Write about a subject that is compelling to you, and then write some more about it. Be selective in your topics of composition: something that does not inspire you in your writing will be uninspiring to the reader!
Do not write to clear your mind: write only when your mind is clear about what it is thinking. The term “throat clearing” is used for the first few paragraphs written by someone who is cough-cough getting to the point! In the meantime, the reader is lost and perhaps will not be found!
Practice makes perfect, or almost perfect. It does not matter if your piece of writing is not good at first. Actually, it is sometimes better if your writing is not good at first. You must learn HOW to improve your writing. It is only through this work of chiseling down the awful, and separating the wheat from the chaff that a talented novice becomes a polished writer. We are all beginners at first, no matter what our craft or profession. And each blank page is a new beginning.
Study the art of classical rhetoric. Acquire a vocabulary that is truly yours: avoid the clichés of modernity that will quickly “sound” dated or date the writing. Classics are timeless because they speak in timeless terms about timeless topics. (It may, however, be necessary to learn clichés of the past for historical or period fiction.) When you speak with words that are natural to your speaking voice, you will write with a language all your own.
I must confess that during my most formative years I somehow avoided learning clichés. I am now so bad with clichés and idioms of any era (including the present) that three books were purchased for me to use for research: The Dictionary of Clichés; dic-tion-ar-y of IDIOMS, and Spilling the Beans on the Cat’s Pajamas. Usually, I combine partially correct portions of two unrelated clichés into one hilarious one that must then be corrected by my proofreader.
Evidently the problem is genetic because Dear Son was of no help whenever I asked him for clarification. He now also owns The Dictionary of Clichés. And he even reads it the way that I do -- in random order. For the overly-literal, linear, sequential thinker, this approach is a huge breakthrough!
An example of my mental struggle: I asked Dear Husband to proofread an addition to “Back Story” on this website. I’d written “set off all four engines.” He corrected it to “set off all cylinders,” and suggested “fire off all cylinders” but I hesitated to be too accurate with my idiom! It would not reflect my genuine voice.
Once I asked Dear Daughter to remedy (or at least sort out) one of the “figures of speech” that I was trying to get right. She gently laughed, “You don’t even know the name of the thing you don’t know!” I replied, “How can I? That’s why I don’t know it.”
Find out what it is you don’t know, and then learn it. Perhaps you lack a captivating sense of timing in your scenes. Maybe you have not yet learned that your character must earn her moment: you cannot just give it to her. Oftentimes, a writer is too eager to reveal information that must wait until the proper moment, the PSYCHOLOGICAL moment.
Read the literary advice and criticisms of your admired authors, but do not attempt to emulate those authors. Follow, in your own way, the techniques in which they became so adept (even brilliant) that it appeared that they invented those techniques! In this manner, you will arrive at your own style.
Victor Hugo is quoted as having vowed in his youth to be “Chateaubriand or nothing.” (Dear Husband claims that Hugo was not referring to a cut of beef.) It has been quite a while since I read René by Chateaubriand, but I assure you that the experience was not pleasant. I believe that Victor surely surpassed his literary hero in many ways, leaving Chateaubriand far behind!
For many years, decades in fact, I felt intimated by the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald. After writing THE DAWN, I no longer felt intimidated by Fitzgerald or by any writer, even Victor Hugo!
It was a totally unexpected and magnificent summit of achievement. And you need not write a million or so words to reach that stage of self-acceptance and self-assurance. At some point during mastering your craft, you will come to love your voice, not in a conceited way, not in a boastful way, and not in an insufferable way, all of which are petty and speak to a lack of professionalism, if not the lack of a genuine, artistic voice.
Just like the vocalist who, without a written fermata, insists upon holding a note longer than is necessary -- simply to prove she can hold the note -- there is the writer who produces a wall of text to show others how much he can pour out of the creative cranium. In either case, it is very bad form. It also forms the definition of a rank amateur.
This love of your own voice is not a love affair with the sound of it. It is an objective but nurturing appraisal of its qualities. It is an honest and uplifting but steadying sense of euphoria that is the result of your having climbed one very steep mountain or, more likely, a series of steep mountains, if not an entire mountain range! You will reach a pinnacle of achievement, a state of sovereignty over your voice, an ascendency that is sublime. This apex may in fact be a high plateau from which you will climb to other heights. Do not ever doubt your capacity to grow and to enrich your talents and skills at any age.
You will feel a calm sense of appreciation which borders on delight. You will have learned what is good about your writing and what is not good, but you will have left far behind you “what is not good.” Fulfillment will be your reward for filling the blank page and the quiet air around you with the sound of “your voice” – the unique way in which you must say whatever it is you must say.
We might begin with idols and heroes but somewhere along the way the talent within us must overtake the image of the Literary Icon. Ray Charles once said that he began singing like Nat King Cole, which was okay. But singing like Ray Charles was much better, especially for Ray Charles.
No talent worthy of art was ever borrowed, copied, mimicked, or forged. The writer within you knows this truth, and until you honor it (or at least submit to it), your writing will, on some level, fail.
Writing with your true voice does not come automatically, but when that voice emerges, there is no looking back at your trials and attempts to master what other “voices” mastered. You will have created your own tone, your own pitch, your own style. You might well make literary music so original that it can be called “literature.” You will be writing like yourself.