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.