In Week Two, I asked you to think about the artists who are your role models – to consider those artists, dead or alive who make you want to create more, who make you want to stretch to your full promise. Today, I want to dig more deeply into that question.
Some years ago, I mentored the writer Emma Harcourt, as she worked on her first historical novel. I’d suggested some things to read, and about halfway through our work together, I noticed that Emma’s already powerful writing had stepped up to a new level. Thrilled, I asked her what the change had been. Honestly, I was fully expecting that her answer would be, “You happened, Kathryn!” She didn’t say that. Instead, she said: “I started reading Michael Ondaatje and now I just read a paragraph and, whoosh, I’m off”.
Emma had found her Kipling.
Let me explain.
Like Emma, the writer Jack London honed his voice through encountering another writer’s rhythms and words. Jack London, the author of White Fang, knew he wanted to write novels – but he didn’t know how. A fan of Rudyard Kipling, he set himself the task of copying out, in longhand, Kipling’s works – reasoning that the process of absorbing himself in Kipling’s language would teach him how it was done. At the end of the process, when he believed he had Kipling’s voice by heart, by some alchemical magic, London had found his own novelistic voice. One that is clearly quite different, it turns out, from the writer who inspired him.
Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in an interview with Neil Gaiman said that he had found his style through a sort of mimicry of Evelyn Waugh, adding “although no-one notices”. Conversely, Samuel Beckett, author of Waiting for Godot, was an apprentice to James Joyce. It was only when he realised he would never be able to write like Joyce, and finally didn’t want to, that he discovered his own highly distinctive voice. Beckett, the Irishman, needed to write in French to break free of Joyce’s influence.
What I’m talking about here is not the act of mentoring, but of an absorption in the style of a writer you admire which can sometimes, miraculously, open up a whole new element in your own voice.
Today, can you return to considering the work of a writer you admire? In particular, I invite you to find a page or a passage of their writing that particularly pleases you.
Now. Look at that piece of writing. Let’s get forensic.
What is it that you admire here? Try to find two or three really specific elements and write them down. Two or three words or phrases that capture what the writing is doing.
For instance – today I might choose the Tove Jansson novel Fair Play, which I love and admire. I’m going to look at a page of the novel and try to get clear about what I admire in the style. I might jot down: cool and precise writing; lots of subtext – letting things be unspoken; no clutter in the language, very spare.
Your list will be different of course – but try to articulate to yourself what it is that you admire. Not simply, “I like it”, but – “Everything is lush, musical, the characters are explosive…”
And then, your next step is to “White Fang it”. In other words, as Jack London did with Kipling, take those elements into your own writing.
So now, I invite you to write a page or two using the elements of the other writer. If you need a context suggestion, it’s this: someone is engaged in some sort of physical activity. That’s it. But try to write this situation, using the three elements you’ve identified in the other writer.
So, I might take a scene from my memoir, where I’m pulling up a net on a fishing boat, and I’m going to write it aiming for “cool and precise writing, subtext, spare language”.
You will almost certainly find, as Jack London and Emma Harcourt did in their different ways, not that you become a pale version of the other writer – but that you uncover some hidden element of your own voice.
Try it. Like Emma, you might stumble upon the magic slide that – whoosh! – sends you soaring into your own writing adventure.
High above the fenceline