>Even though part of the reason for this blog is supposedly to make me more visible as a writer, and to (shamelessly) promote/pimp the stuff I do, I don’t consider it a “writing” blog by any stretch of the imagination. When it comes to the actual “craft” of writing, I don’t have much to say. I mean, who the hell am I, anyway? Besides, there are plenty others out there doing that, and doing it way better than I ever could. One of my favorite blogs that is essentially a writing blog, though it goes in other directions as well, is one called Do Some Damage. All the contributors are crime writers, they all know what they’re talking about, and I dig it. I like it because their stuff about writing is anecdotal, not preachy . . . and they raise questions that make me think as a writer. That’s what I want for writing advice these days anyway. Plus they seem like cool people.
So the latest contributor to DSD is Joelle Charbonneau, a writer whose debut novel, Skating Around The Law, will be released this fall. In her post today, she talked about a writer’s voice, and how that relates to new writers, experienced writers, and what keeps us coming back as readers. She closed with this question:
Who did you try to mimic when you started writing and what does your voice sound like now?
There are a number of excellent comments to the post, and I thought about weighing in myself. After giving it some thought, though, I decided to do my own blog, because it is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately.
I don’t think I have ever considered a particular writer as someone to emulate. During one of the workshops I took last summer, for the last week we did an emulation thing, where we were supposed to write a short little piece, trying to copy a writer we like, and see if the others could guess whom we were emulating. I was at an utter loss. First off, given that the other people in this workshop were basically literary types who wouldn’t know it if I’d submitted one of my favorite writers word-for-word and called it my own (I was amazed that they actually guessed a couple of each other’s pieces, citing writers I’d never heard of, but that was pretty typical for the course; I’m not very well read in the traditional “literary” genre), I thought it would be a waste of my time. Secondly, I just don’t read that way. I don’t admire writers for how they write, necessarily, though it is important. I admire them for their ability to tell a good story, and to punch me in the gut with the power of their art. It’s part of what I don’t like so much about what I have read of literary fiction these days. So many of these writers just float around in circles, buoyed by their “luminous” prose, without dropping the hammer on me in any way that I care about.
A couple years ago, when I first was getting serious about really getting serious about writing again, I read a line in Susan Zakin‘s book Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement, where she referred to writers like Ed Abbey, Chuck Bowden, Doug Peacock, et al as “hairy chested Western writers”, and I thought to myself, “Aha! That’s what I want to be!” I don’t know that her quip was meant to be entirely flattering, but I saw it in a different light. As an example, which is a bit over the top, I’ll share this bit about male writers from a little essay that appeared last week from Esquire magazine that I got a ton of giggles out of:
Writers, too, have never been more desperate to paint themselves as weaklings and victims. Every memoir is now suspect. Writers will claim to have gone to jail when they’re upstanding citizens. They’ll claim to be drunks when they’re clean. They’ll cry rape. They crave debasement in order that they may be more exalted. And that’s just the nonfiction. The thirty-something generation of American novelists has replaced Hemingway’s hypermasculinity — writing like it passed the time between rhinoceros shooting and threesomes with Italian whores — with poses of rapt loss. Jonathan Safran Foer tries his hardest to write like a precocious twelve-year-old girl. He takes breaks from his neutered novels to write defenses of vegetarianism. Dave Eggers pursues the most direct course, though: He just assumes the voice of victims — a Sudanese genocide survivor and an Arab immigrant caught in Katrina-addled New Orleans — and writes their stories as if he were them. His first screenplay was genuinely original in the purity of its ascetic violence, but he kind of pulled back the curtain on his own motivation: Art is his means of demonstrating contempt for the world and his moral and intellectual superiority to everyone in it.
There doesn’t have to be anything wrong with being manly, at least so long as you aren’t being an asshole about it. It isn’t all about testosterone-fueled rampages, but it ain’t all soft and limp either.
The kind of writing I most love, and the kind of writing I want to do, is the kind that grabs you by the throat, melts your face off, and leaves you gasping for breath. I don’t mind a little of the emotional, softer, Sun Magazine stuff now and then, but it’s rare that that stuff leaves me feeling anything stronger than, “Hm, that person is a good writer.” A lot of it is pretty bland in its excellence, and that can’t be a good thing. I like stuff that is unique, even if it is too extreme for the average person to really wrap their brain around.
Going with a musical metaphor, let’s talk about this dude Iron and Wine (aka Sam Beam). He sells his share of records, though he is still essentially an indy, underground artist. He has his lyrical songs, his breathy voice, his quiet little image, and the college girls dig him. What’s not to love? Hell, the guy even kind of looks like Jesus, doesn’t he?
He seems a nice guy too, based on every interview I’ve read. He’s pretty DIY, and I admire the path he’s taken with his music. About once a year I can break out one of his records and listen to a few songs, then shrug, acknowledge his quality, and move on. Here’s one of his nice, artful videos for you to enjoy:
See? Pretty swell, eh? I’m sure most readers of this blog find him likable, and can understand and relate to what people love about him. Heartfelt, and non-threatening, isn’t he? Mmm, yeah. Flowers probably bloom when he’s around.
Now let’s move on to–
HIGH ON FIRE and MATT fuckin’ PIKE. Jesus? Hell, this dude looks like SATAN!
I have been to a lot of shows in my life. This band is arguably the most punishing thing I’ve ever been bludgeoned by, especially when you realize it is just three friggin’ guys. Hell, we opened for these guys one time, and the highest compliment I ever received was Matt remarking after the show that, “You guys went on, and I was like, ‘man, these guys are fuckin’ loud’!” And I was all, “Matt, look who’s talking!” I’ll cherish the memory.
There is nothing more menacing than Matt Pike with one foot on the monitor, bellowing out songs about mayhem and destruction. I mean, check this out, if you dare:
Thing is, Matt and his band are also a swell group of guys. But you’d never know it, or expect it, based on their art and performance. Quite the opposite, in fact, which is one of the things I love about it.
Look, I understand why people don’t get heavy music, I really do. But to me, everything about life is there. Emotion. Dynamics. Excitement. Love. Fear. Triumph. Despair. Getting in the middle of a crowd going nuts for this is pure, primal ecstasy.
No, it ain’t for the casual. That’s a big part of what I love about it. It is exhausting and exhilarating. I like to leave a show sweaty, battered and bruised. It beats a numb ass from sitting in my seat golf-clapping.
I want my writing to be more like High on Fire than Iron and Wine. More Wino than Bob Dylan. And you’ll either get it or you won’t, and that is fine with me.