Saturday, December 31, 2011

Writers are Readers

--By Stella Atrium

Joni Mitchell claimed once that she didn't listen to music of her peers (or competitors) because she didn't want the melodies or rhymes to impact her style.  Music is in the air, and composers can imitate without realizing the source.Joni

I knew a singer-songwriter who performed twice a month at a small club.  One week he sounded like Steve Goodman, and the next time he sounded like Kris Kristofferson, and later his voice had the quality of Fred Holstein.  I saw him perform again about a year later, and the young songwriter had found a method of phrasing that suited him, really and amalgam of all his heroes.

By emulating those who came before, he met audience expectations and began to step out on his own. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say.

Writers are always experimenting, and a turn of phrase borrowed from another writer shows that he reads, at least. Except fantasy writers borrow magic from other stories, and borrow powers for vampires from other stories; even slang in urban fantasy is often borrowed from other writers.

I had a writer friend who refused to read the Harry Potter series because she didn't want her own work to appear derivative.  This concern is real — I can tell after devouring a fantasy series from a single author if she read Shakespeare or not.

HamletThe word skulking is from Hamlet, for example.  The young prince and his buddies skulked around the rampart until the king's ghost appeared.

We learn to address the world by using models of success and following lessons learned by elders shared as cautionary tales. We feel engaged with the group when we identify with players or singers or actors. Rick Perry wants to be the Tim Tebow of the debates.

We know we have succeeded when the boss enters a meeting wearing your same tie. 

Ray Bradbury claimed he wrote well when he fed his soul with good reading. His imagination was alive and ready for making new characters and new dialogue. Perhaps the operative word here is GOOD reading.  It's not enough to read; what we read counts for quality writing, just like museum art or music that isn't rap.

We write what we know. The first science fiction stories grew from the experiences of engineers who were veterans of WWII and had seen the horrors people can do. Remember GI Joe comic books? Remember Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut? GI Joe

So it's fine to capture words and situations from reading and re-purpose and remediate (my word of the day, he, he). It's also fine to research and dig deeper to find your truth spoken in your voice that you delineated by comparison to all those other voices, like a soloist in a choir.

Just don't write any more vampire stories, 'kay?

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