Monday, August 1, 2016

On being different

     For a time I taught creative writing at a community college, and I was struck by the attitudes some students had as they approached the craft.

     Somewhat understandably, many seemed to believe the goal is to be as different as possible in order to make their writing stand out above all the rest.  So they would choose to write in first person present tense.  Or employ every big word they knew in an attempt to impress the reader.  Or stretch the flowery, arty use of metaphors to the breaking point.  I had one student write a short-short story as one long paragraph, all in lower case.

     But with only a little thought, it becomes clear that the goal of a writer, especially in the early stages of learning, is not to be different. 

     Quite the opposite.  The shining goal is to be the same.

     If you wanted to become a fine cabinetmaker, for example, you could do no better than to study how a long-time respected expert does it, and then try to copy every technique, every secret.  Take advantage of all that accumulated knowledge and proven experience.  Try to become that expert cabinetmaker.

     If you want to be a great writer, you can do no better than try your best to emulate those great writers you admire and enjoy and who work within the genre you wish to write.  Try to make your writing as good as theirs in every possible way.  Take full advantage of their years of proven success.  Blatantly copy their every technique.  Try to be one of them.

     Many a great writer has done the same.  Sherlock and sidekick Watson were one of the first super successful fiction teams.  Think about how many writers have boldly copied that idea alone to help achieve success.  Author John D. MacDonald invented Travis McGee and Meyer.  Rex Stout had Nero Wolfe and sidekick Archie Godwin, Robert Crais has Elvis Cole and Pike.  Janet Evanovich has Stephanie Plum and cop Joe Morelli.  Emulating the master Arthur Conan Doyle sure worked out well for them and a host of others who’ve climbed to the literary summit.

     I guarantee this approach of trying your best to follow the examples of the masters will prove to be a shortcut in your own struggle up the literary mountain.  As you do this, your own unique voice and style will begin to emerge automatically, with no conscious effort, simply because you’re you.

     And you’ll wind up being nicely different, anyway. 


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