Monday, June 7, 2010

Don't Try to Be Someone Else

Are you a writer? I bet you got into this whole thing because you read. Even if you started writing when you were a kid, there was someone, some author whose work you read where you thought,

"Wow."

Maybe you wished you could do something like that. Or, like me, maybe you didn't think about the writing at the time, but wished you could be inside the story, to have it happen to you. But either way, I think when we start writing, most of us have people we'd like to emulate. And the further we go, the more we discover other writers and their great works, and we say to ourselves,

"I wish I could write like that."

It's good to have role models, even idols. It's wonderful to admire, to read and analyze, to try to achieve something you've seen in an author you love.

There's an in-between space, though, that you should watch out for. When you start being a member of a writing field, you see people in all different places along a career trajectory (and those career trajectories take very different forms). Sometimes you see people who are "ahead" of you. Be careful.

Don't envy them, and don't ever try to become them.

There are huge risks in this. The most obvious one I can think of is that if you let envy make you get ugly, the people around you won't want to help you any more. The other gigantic one is that if you try to be someone else, you will probably fail.

Writing is very individual. Your voice as a writer is the combined echo of every piece of language you've ever heard, filtered through your judgments and values. Your writing is unique. If you try to imitate, very likely you'll end up disconnecting yourself from the Muse you need to follow.

Don't fall into the assumption that you are in competition with other writers. You're not. That thing you can do is unlike anything anyone else does, for one thing. If you can do it and stand out unlike the anyone else, you can achieve success. If on the other hand your writing evokes the work of another great writer, well, you can share their market. I can't think of any reader who owns only one book! I can't think of any reader who would hear that someone's writing resembled one of their favorites and decide without a single glance that it had to be horrible and derivative. And after all, wasn't emulating the greats one of the things that got you into writing in the first place?

I can't say this enough times: don't belittle the unique background and experiences that contribute to your voice. Be true to yourself and your vision. If you can do that, and keep working hard to improve your craft, you are far more likely to make it. And if you keep working, and reaching out to the people around you, one day you may find yourself having a friendly chat with the very author you've always admired - while somewhere out there new writers look at your work and say,

"I wish I could write like that."