I am a Milwaukee writer who has been writing for as long as I can remember. I started writing regularly when I was in fifth grade, and while I hope none of these stories ever surface, ever, it is something that I have always enjoyed doing.
With this in mind, for as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve also struggled with writing. Specifically, the balance between finding your voice and finding your true, authentic story. Audience perception also plays into this because, let’s be honest with ourselves, the audience’s opinion does matter to a point. Finding the happy balance while still keeping creative integrity has always been something I’ve struggled with.
I should probably preface with I’ve been reading Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just — I finished it a week ago, and I’ve just picked it up again. I think it’s a great piece of work, with a lot of great and pretty accessible ideas in it. While it’s not directed towards writers, I do think a lot of what she says pertains to writing an authentic story.
Much of what she says in her text alludes to the idea that beauty, authentic beauty, is tied to truth. The idea that seeing a beautiful object is not only powerful, but in art, you have the urge to replicate it in its most authentic form. To allow the perceiver to catch a glimpse of the beauty you’ve just witnessed. A pure motive — where you want to expose your audience to the experience, to allow them to take part.
I think this is a beautiful idea, and something that I strive for when I’m writing. A clear image in my head that I’m trying to convey to the reader.
I do realize that especially now, especially with the incredibly easy access to literature online legally or illegally, it’s difficult to read something beautiful and ignore the lingering “I want to create something exactly like that” thoughts in the back of your mind. I understand this.
When I first decided I wanted to do something with writing, I decided wanted to be the next Hunter S Thompson. I read all of his work. I watched all of his documentaries. I’m even guilty of copying The Great Gatsby verbatim more times that I am ready to admit JUST because I heard Thompson did this to understand how to create impactful prose. While I’d like to think this was not a complete waste of my freshman year in college, I do admit that it was not done for the right reasons. It was not done because I felt The Great Gatsby was a great work, though I think it’s a great story it wasn’t me who set out to recreate it. Essentially, I was doing a recreation of a recreation.
Anyone who has copied an image over and over knows that the integrity eventually fades — that it becomes a pixelated, fuzzy version of its former self.
Hunter S Thompson was successful because he did something new. Something he felt passionate about. I did feel passionate about his style, however I did not have the same grounds, nor exactly the same mentality as he did. I looked at the surface and copied. I didn’t internalize. I didn’t make it my own. Would I like to have as impactful of a voice as Hunter S Thompson? Of course. However, it can’t be done by copying exactly what he’s done.
That already exists.
I’m not saying that reading something beautiful should not insight this urge either. One line of literature stands out to me in particular from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — “Then they set off upon the road again, slumped and cowled and shivering in their rags, like mendicant friars set forth to find their keep”. That line — that’s a beautiful line. Something I could only wish to replicate in its most authentic form.
However, at least from what I’ve found, it’s learning how to digest a piece of literature like this — to learn from this beautiful imagery and put it into your own perspective. To expose them to something new. This line already exists, readers have access to it. However, readers do not have access to how you internalized this line. What you truly think of this absolutely beautiful simile.
One of the worst things you can accuse an artist is of plagiarism — an unauthentic work. This is an easy trap to fall into. Humans are naturally conformist. We like the safe route — the route where we know we will not be put on the gallows after years and years of effort. Anyone who’s been through high school knows this. I know I wore Superman platform sneakers for way longer than I’d like to admit just because once, someone told me they look cool.
This is where I’m going to draw on an article I read from Mental Floss — scientifically, why people think Nickelback is the worst. >> Here << is the article. I have no opinion on this. I honestly haven’t listened to Nickelback, well, at all (other than background music at the mall) which means I have no grounds for any sort of opinion. However I thought the commentary was interesting. Their harshest criticism isn’t that they’re not talented, but that they are an imitation of every other band out there. They have been accused of being “optimally safe”, a “commercial answer to the grunge movement”, which is exactly what grunge is against. That they are “too calculated in their artistic approach”.
Especially with writing, it’s easy to fall into the Nickelback mentality (I feel guilty falling on this trope, but I hope this means something to you, and I hope you understand what I’m trying to say.). There have been so many great authors out there. This is an idea I struggled with when I was learning to write — vetting myself against well-established authors to create what I thought was an authentic story. What I didn’t realize is they have a completely different background than I do — that I would be creating a copy of what their life brought them to create. What their internal thought processes created, something I wasn’t there for, so therefore have no idea what the true basis is. Much like how many people feel the book is so much better than the movie, many times the original idea is the most resonant.
Even someone like Ray Bradbury felt this way. From his article “Run Fast, Stand Still..” He describes his early years in writing:
“I wrote at least a thousand words a day every day from age twelve on. For years Poe was looking over one shoulder, while Wells, Burroughs, and just about every writer in Astounding and Weird Tales looked over the other.
I loved them, and they smothered me. I hadn’t learned how to look away and in the process look not at myself by at what went on behind my face.
It was only then when I began to discover the treats and tricks that came with word association that I began to find some true way through the minefields of imitation. I finally figured out that if you are going to step on a live mine, make it your own. Be blown up, as it were, by your own delights and despairs.”
Many greats have struggled with this — the idea that they will never be as great as their predecessors. This is not something to be embarrassed about.
While it can be daunting to expose your raw ideas to the public, this fear is a rite of passage. I’m still very much in this rite of passage — trying to find my voice while still creating something authentic. It’s tough. It’s scary. It’s nerve wracking.
With this in mind, I’ve created a site that I hope will inspire writers to work together to find their own voices. At its core, it is a community of Wisconsin based writers who workshop their ideas via forum. I hope that it will grow into a creative and collaborative, inspiring community for the area. Even if you are someone who has already found your own unique voice, feel free to check it out — it’s free and open to the public!
One day I hope to be among the successful writers who have found their voice instead of being smothered by a cloud of greatness I hope to achieve. It’s the voices that are brave enough to speak alongside these voices, to allow their true thoughts, their reactions, their desire to create something authentic and impactful. It doesn’t take a martyr — you just have to take the jump. If anything, you will feel a lot better about what you are creating when you know it is your own.
This post was originally posted on the Wisconsin Writing Community blog Bold & Italicized, which seeks to be a collaborative, virtual group of writers from the Milwaukee area. The original article is posted here.