Memoirs of an Imperfect Snowflake

When I was learning to write (and who am I kidding, I’ll always be learning) I knew I had to read a lot of books in order to hone my craft.  After all, I could learn all the writing “rules” in the world, but I knew the best way to grow as a writer was by absorbing all the subtle nuances and hidden rhythms that make up good prose.  So when I started blogging seriously I took the same approach.  I figured if I was going to have a blog, I was going to need to study other blogs, good and bad, to see what worked and what didn’t.  If I was ever going to be successful I needed to know who was doing it right and who was doing it wrong.

But yesterday I hit a snag.

Let me set the scene for you:  A new reader named mlkabik had just commented on my blog.  Whenever someone does that, I always check out their blog and try to find something I can comment on beyond just saying “I like this post.” There are two reasons for this.  First, I’m trying to build a following here.  I know if another blogger knows I cared enough to click through and comment on his work he’ll be more likely to come back to see what I have tomorrow.  But second and just as important, I really do enjoy encouraging my fellow-writers.  If no one ever commented on this blog I’d probably get discouraged and give up, and I know I’m not the only one in need of encouragement out there.

So I clicked through and took a look at mlkabik’s blog.  Here is a small sample of one particular post that caught my eye.

The smell reminds me of my awkward flirtation, both with her and her church (though only one smelled like my hands do now). The overstuffed couch and her wandering, milk-fed legs. The early morning drives to my mom’s – the fogginess of what the night was.

Now I don’t know about you, but I love this stuff.  The meandering evocative prose is like manna to my soul.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is, I can’t write like this.  Not even close.  Well, okay, I could try to write like that.  I might even manage some kind of success if I sat down and really worked at it.  But it wouldn’t be me.

Once upon a time that bothered me.  I’d read an author and think, “I can’t write like this guy can write.  This sounds so different from my stuff.  I’ll never be as good as he is.”  If you’re a writer you’ve probably experienced the same thing.  And what’s worse, that feeling of inferiority can be crippling if you let it fester.  You’ll start to think to yourself “If I’m never going to be as good as this guy, I might at well hang it up. What’s the use in pounding out my second-rate drivel?”

But recently I realized I was approaching the problem in the wrong way.  Because the truth is I’m not a bad writer.  And if the comments are anything to go on neither are you.  Do we need some rough edges knocked off? Sure.  Do we still have a lot to learn? Absolutely!  But we’re not inferior just because we can’t write like someone else.

Don’t believe me?  Keep reading.

Ever heard of Ernest Hemingway? If you haven’t you should stop reading right now and go and read The Old Man and the Sea, because it is awesome.  Seriously, go.  We’ll be here when you get back.

Done? Good wasn’t it? But do you know how Ernest Hemingway got his start as a novelist?  He started reading after F. Scott Fitzgerald.  You’re probably most familiar with Fitzgerald as the author of The Great Gatsby which is another fantastic book.

But the two have a style that is nothing alike.  Fitzgerald could string out grandiose and magnificent sentences of such eloquent beauty and poetic perfection that it’s hard not to cry when you look at them.  Hemingway, on the other hand, wrote sentences like a man swinging an ax.  Methodical, rhythmic, effective.

Now imagine if Ernest Hemingway had read Fitzgerald’s work and said, “My writing isn’t like this at all.  I should give it up and go home.”  We would have lost one of the greatest writers of our time.

Because the truth is we don’t all write alike.  We all have a voice that shines through our words, and that voice, when all the distractions and all the insecurities are stripped away, is something as complex and unique as a fingerprint.  And that isn’t a bad thing.  To become better writers we must study what other writers have done, but that doesn’t mean we’re under some obligation to produce the same kind of work.

Because I may think mlkabik’s writing is like manna from heaven, but every once in a while, I’m in the mood for a little pumpernickel rye bread, lightly toasted, with just a scrape of butter on the top.

And now, I’ve made myself hungry.

****

On a completely unrelated note today’s post is number 111 and it falls on 1.11.11.  I didn’t plan it that way, but I think it’s uber cool.

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9 responses to “Memoirs of an Imperfect Snowflake

  1. Author Kristen Lamb

    Every time I read LeHane and Koontz, I wonder what the hell I am doing. Great point. Our voice will be distinctive, and when we copy it isn’t being true to who we are. We just need to trust that, with enough practice, others will one day think OUR writing is manna from heaven :D.

  2. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t get anything useful from Kristen Lamb’s post. I felt that she talked all around the issue of “voice,” while you nailed it with one illustration and what it meant to you.

    A lifetime of reading told me that I wasn’t qualified to be a novelist because I couldn’t imagine anything like the fascinating worlds that enchanted me, or write the amazing descriptions that rolled off the tongue and brought scenes to my mind’s eye. If I tried to come up with a plot for a story, I couldn’t get past the first bare-bones idea. So I turned to non-fiction. And that’s where I discovered my voice and my own kind of imagination, and how to write my own kind of fiction. I don’t think I could have learned any of that from how-to books or articles. Sometimes, you just have to discover it for yourself.

    • Well, Kristen’s post had a bit of a different focus and approach to the issue. The things I wanted to say were from a more personal viewpoint. I knew I was going to come at it from a different angle, but I didn’t want to come off as a copycat, so when Kristen encouraged me to write my perspective anyway, it was really a great help.
      And, if you don’t like that particular post of hers, keep reading. Her blog is the reason I started doing what I’m doing here. It’s a fantastic resource and encouragement for writers.

  3. I feel that way about many of my favorite writers, too. Great thoughts on voice. We have to learn to trust our own and not hold it up against others’. Often it’s like comparing apples to oranges, or snowflakes to snowflakes–no two are alike.

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  5. I wouldn’t berate yourself too much. I think it’s exceptional of you to understand that your writing doesn’t have to be like someone else’s writing. If we all wrote the same thing in the same style, what a boring bunch of cookie cutter books we’d have on our shelves.

    You always have such insight and kind words for other writers, don’t forget to keep some of that for yourself, mister!

    • I wouldn’t say I berate myself, but every writer goes through that stage when they have self doubt. I’ve been through some really bad bouts of depression in the past when it came to writing, but because I was able to push through the dark times and not give up I believe I’m a better person and a better writer for it.

  6. You know, you inspire me. I was going through one of those days when I think I’m not as good as one of those writers out there. This one hit me to the core.

    Yes, Kristen Lamb is awesome (I’m waiting for the Author Triple Threat in the mail). However, your post was different from hers. She’s talking about how structure/plotting should help writers develop their voices. You are giving example of why that is the case.

    I look forward to reading your posts.

    • I’m so glad to be able to help. I know how hard all these things can be to deal with because I’ve been through them myself. I’ve learned a lot and I’m still learning, and hopefully I’ll be able to share the best of that with you.
      Thanks for coming along for the journey.

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