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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Can't Find Your Writing Voice? Steal One.


When I was in the creative writing program at the University of Virginia (lo these many moons ago), author Robert Hemenway taught a class that would prove seminal. He required we read selected works of Issac Babel, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Porter and Ernest Hemingway. The final assignment was to write a story in the style of one of these authors.

I’ve heard writers say that reading-to-imitate rocks their boat. They are afraid of getting another author’s voice in their head. After all, isn’t the whole point to avoid the derivative in search of one’s own voice?

Nah. The whole point is to write.

When undertaking a new creative endeavor, any artist needs first to develop a vocabulary. Imitation need not lead to assimilation. Is an actor afraid of forever speaking in the rat-a-tat cadence of David Mamet? Is a painter afraid his drip creation will be mistaken for Jackson Pollock’s? Was Maria Callas afraid she would sound like Elvira de Hidalgo? Of course not. Style and technique develop over time, and if you learn well, , grasshopper, you may one day surpass the master.

Or step into your own head, which is just as good.

I wrote “My Last Deer” after studying Isaac Babel’s story, “My First Goose.” Babel was a Russian Jew and student of Maxim Gorky. Gorky told him he had no hope of being a great writer until he experienced life beyond his comfort zone, so in 1920, Babel joined the Red Cavalry, whose brutality was in sharp contrast with his gentle nature. He wrote “My First Goose,” during that time. It tells of a young soldier, a gentle intellectual, who is ostracized until he proves his “worthiness” as a soldier. He roughly accosts an elderly woman, brutally kills her goose (“its head cracking beneath my boot”) and orders her to cook it for him. This earns him a respectful place among the other Cossacks even as his heart, "crimson with murder, screeched and bled."

That story got to me in a big way.

“My Last Deer” paralleled “My First Goose” in that it is a story of initiation. Young Annie is pressured into going deer hunting with her father, when she’d rather take pictures with her new Insta-matic camera. When her father kills and guts a deer in the woods, he urges her, to her horror, to take his picture alongside his trophy. Annie, “wretched,” obeys.

Stylistically, I was struck by Babel’s descriptive eccentricities: "The sunset was boiling in the skies, a sunset thick as jam...." "The naked shine of the moon poured over the town with unquenchable strength." "The village street lay before us, and the dying sun in the sky, and yellow as a pumpkin, breathed its last breath." A little much? Not for me. I lapped it up with a spoon, and in “My Last Deer” wrote, “The sun’s yoke cracked and sizzled in the sky.” Pretty eccentric, eh?

Okay, so I’m no Isaac Babel. And I’m not trying to be. But the assignment taught me there is value in emulating an admired writer. From Babel I learned the power of a simply constructed sentence. It was he who said, "No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place." 

By the way, Isaac Babel, the gentle, bespectacled writer from Odessa, was arrested, tortured and shot during Stalin’s Great Purge. His story collection, The Red Cavalry, survived.

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