The Curse of the Most Recent: How to Turn It into a Blessing By Paul Saevig

There’s a hoary legend that medical students fear they’ve contracted each new disease they learn about. While outlandish, it’s true, because they’re uneasy and unsure of themselves. Among fiction writers, there’s a phenomenon that reminds me of these poor, worried medical students. It’s that although most writers keep reading, make time for it and learn, many of them believe they must perpetually discover and rediscover the final and definitive way to write in a series of authors. To embrace this literary salvation, a writer may revise everything to be like the Final Truth writer, or may even abandon work in progress as “the wrong way I used to write”. After a few months, weeks or days, she realizes the new direction leads nowhere and soon chooses a new Final Truth writer to follow.

This ring around the rosy process seems resourceful and even shrewd to the writer doing it. She may go from writing like Iris Murdoch to Thomas Clancy to Dean Koontz to Jane Smiley to Kingsley Amis to Norman Mailer to David Lodge to Graham Greene and beyond. She’s like people who follow fads, fashions, crazes, or rising and dying interests in matters including diets, makeup, music, or vacation destinations. My own group of beginning writer friends in Southern California in the early 60s began with Hemingway as our supreme model, and soon vacated his harsh badlands of grace under pressure for the loquacious and lyrical lushness of the expansive Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River. As Wolfean proteges, we allowed our pens to roam with indulgent ease over our notebooks, satisfying every impulse for passion and burgeoning expression, without limit. Verily we saw the wrong in this method for anyone but Wolfe himself, and turned instead to the more measured and disciplined Stephen Crane. Our stories achieved little of his acuteness and compaction, though, and it was on to Chekhov, Tolstoy, and other shrines along the royal road to the increasingly faraway Kingdom of Great Writing.

The fickle writer impairs his own literary growth, even though he may realize what he’s doing and be unable to stop himself. His conviction is that each new enthusiasm is finally the Grail, the voice one needs, the style, themes and pacing or characterization to make one the desired writer of genius and success. I’m a recovering Grail Seeker now, but still crave the shortcuts to genius that old and new models sometimes seem to offer.

My own efforts to learn and improve in this cycle of emulation were disastrous for two reasons, One, I stumbled with the confused faith that writing fiction is a codified discipline of objectively proven truths and methods. It is not, and is rather the opposite.

Second, I wasted time and effort by searching for the Elysian Fields of sure, easy writing with guaranteed success, acclaim and riches. If writing is sure and easy for anyone, it’s not for good writers but only for those who stamp out metric tons of supermarket pap for lurid movies. There is no guaranteed success in this blue planet, especially not in writing. If one seeks it on the cheap by sincere mimicry of others, she returns after each disappointment to the starting point, burdened by more doubt and a growing perception of the futility in advancing.

Yet how does any writer begin? We need to communicate, we decide to write, and craft stories, following what we guess are the methods of a writer we love and admire, or several. The process and selection usually occur unconsciously, as we’re aware only of wanting to be as great as Hardy or Austen or Dickens or Tolkien, and setting out to try. Or we may heartily and deliberately try to write in the manner of C. S. Lewis or Virginia Woolf or Michael Chabon or Joseph Heller or any writer of our choice.

Obviously we need to begin somewhere, and we may think it’s reinventing the wheel to create one’s own and original way from the beginning. That’s an extreme bother, though, and we can pursue a middle course of having models to begin with. Through judicious if not pious imitation, we gradually develop one’s own voice, style, themes and so on.

The trouble arises when a writer cleaves too closely to literary models and pursues new ones promiscuously, never sated. He does it because lacks resolve or confidence in his own abilities. If he perseveres with writing, he suffers chronic loss of momentum, self-ordained interruptions, loss of time and focus through switching and revising, confusion over literary goals and values, and continually damaged confidence. The method then is futile and desperate.

Models come and go in his perspective. In my case, I no longer try to write like Joyce, Woolf or Lawrence, while their genius still inspires me and I carry my lessons from them. From Joyce, it’s to love and celebrate language in a bold and seeking manner. From Woolf, I have a taste for delving as deep as I can into each character, faithful that the excavation will strengthen my stories. I try to muster some Lawrentian fire and disregard for the stale and fixed in pursuit of the satisfying and glorious. It’s possible to learn from and grow by reading other writers, without making the radical decision that a writer presently being read must become one’s exemplar.

Maybe a detailed example would demonstrate how a reader with the best intentions could make this mistake. Suppose a writer named Mary has been writing for twenty years, since she left school, and has published two or three stories since, while working as a waitress in Barnet. She realizes her writing must improve and isn’t sure how to make it.

An editor rejects one of Mary’s stories, and calls it “flat”. Mary reads The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald, his famous unfinished novel, based on the Boy Genius Irving Thalberg of MGM in the 1930s, and she discovers his writing seems easy, sometimes jewel-like, with apt and memorable metaphors, similes and imagery, often at the edge of humor, and that his main characters are convincing and powerful. She decides she must write this way to make her stories sing, as she understands his methods, so she dedicates herself to concocting imagery, similes and metaphors for her stories. She also borrows Fitzgerald’s often melancholy air, and even attempts a little subtle, implied Fitzgerald humor. The result is that her stories change a little, but only superficially, and they slump under the pressures of her imitations. She either lacks the years of practice Fitzgerald needed to produce his imagery, or she simply lacks his gift. Her sense of humor is different from hers. She is a cheerful person from whom manufactured melancholy seems fake and silly. She is disappointed and decides she still must find out how to write, for the umpteenth time.

Some of us may find Mary’s literary path admirable and inevitable, or simply as the inevitable way of learning, mostly by brutal trial and error. I agree that writers need to experiment and stretch to find their voice, subjects, style and strengths and weaknesses, but this period must be limited. There is a time to remove the training wheels from the bicycle and venture out on the road. The flaw in her serial emulation is her postponement or delay of the inevitable by not making deciding her own methods, pledging herself to them, and using them to tell her stories as best she can, while learning lessons and nuances from others. Instead, she’s reinventing herself as a writer every month or year, and meanwhile retarding her progress, which is a weak and unpromising course, if only pragmatically.

I don’t think she has a writing problem at all, as long as she writes the stories she wants to write, and as long as they come from deep inside her and she works at her craft consistently. Her problem lies in confidence and will, which are quantities that can be developed and bolstered elsewhere. That is her urgent task, to find reasons and ways to believe in herself and what she’s doing. Virtually all writers struggle with this, and all artists.

May I suggest a technique from psychotherapy? The reader may find it obvious, trivial or even flip. What helps almost always is to assume the attitude that one is doing fine, and that things are going well. Pretend this is true and continue working. Your thoughts tend to shape your feelings, and therefore your writing. Unless you’re psychotic, there is little danger of leading oneself down the primrose path into a condition of unreality. At worst, your writing won’t be so good, and that can be adjusted and tweaked back onto the road to progress. What is most likely is that you will write more easily and with increasing confidence, the very environment for you to do your best.

Carolyn See has recently written a book that can help. It’s called “Making A Literary Life: Advice For Writers and Other Dreamers”. It’s not only about writing and how to write well, but also how to make your life and writing career feasible and as pleasant as possible. For example, she discusses how writers see, think and remember. She recommends what to read, and how to conceive stories and characters. She discusses how writers edit and polish their work, find agents, and publish, as well as how celebrated writers have done it.

Her book has been scorned by one American editor in particular, who found it excessively pragmatic and concerned with commerce. Yet that quality and concern become one of the chief attributes of the book, and after all, all the great writers I know anything about were keenly interested in selling their work, making it accessible to wide audiences, and capturing the attention of their readers. Look at Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Lawrence, Shaw, Maugham, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Oates, to name a few.

Without racing breathlessly after those who you think are superior writers, there is a way for you to write and produce your best work, with confidence and satisfaction. It depends not on your writing the way someone else does, but on finding your own way and growing with it. Hemingway’s model was Henry James, Somerset Maugham’s Flaubert, John Irving’s Dickens, Faulkner’s the King James Bible poets and editors as well as Shakespeare, and you can have yours, too. There is a felicitous middle ground in which a writer can learn from those authors she reads and admires, without junking her own voice at every new infatuation. To stand firmly on this ground and learn, though, requires concentration, discernment, a bit of risk and faith, and most of all, will.

Copyright Paul Saevig 2003

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