In a recent conversation, writer C.R. Stapor (author of the short story collection The Wraith Atlas, which I highly recommend), talked with me about developing a voice. “I once spent several weeks,” he told me, “writing a page a day as one of my favorite authors. One day I was Dostoevsky, another day I was Friedrich Nietzsche. I finished Kafka’s The Castle. I’m totally proud of that. It was one of the best writing exercises I’ve ever done.” Paradoxically, he explained, this helped him discover his own voice.
Leaving aside the potential of self-induced madness (Nietzsche? Kafka?), this seems like good advice. Sometimes we resist imitation, thinking it destroys our originality. It is a fact, however, that no matter how hard we try to hide our own voice and resist revealing ourselves in our art, the truth will out. A too-rigid focus on trying to be original can actually be stifling. We don’t have to try to be original. We can’t help it. I once complained to painting teacher Todd Brown that I couldn’t draw. “Of course you can,” he insisted (and I’m paraphrasing), “and I’ll prove it to you. Consider your signature. That is a completely original drawing, unlike any other person’s living or dead, as distinctive as your fingerprints. And you draw it successfully time after time, without even thinking about it. Drawing is a natural human activity, a birthright. Every drawing you make will have your personal stamp on it. Trust yourself. It’ll come to you.” Experience reveals he was right.
So don’t be afraid of imitation. Your voice will find its way out if that is what you want. If you are the sort of person for whom imitation would serve as an end in itself, you are no artist. Might as well use your talent to make good imitations, take the money and run. But if you are an artist, you’ll grow. It’s guaranteed.
What does this mean in practice? Well, when I was a high school English teacher and taught “the poetry unit.” I was consistently astonished at how effective it was to give the students a model and simply say: “try to write a poem like that.” No craft lesson, no analysis, no set of rules, no guidelines, just: “try to make one like that.” It worked every time.
In fact, when we are children, that’s exactly how we learn. We just try to “do it like Mommy” or “do it like Daddy.” It’s called play. It’ll take you further than you think.
So: keep it simple. Find a poem, a story or an essay that you really like. Then just try to make one like that. The results may surprise you.
– Charles Kruger
The Storming Bohemian