Credit Your Predecessors BUT Develop Your Own Voice

There is no failure in starting your writing career under the influence of your favorite writers and trying to reproduce their style. Emulating their voice is part of your own experimentation with and initiation into the world of the art of writing. It’s good to have an ideal that guides you and keeps you working; but, always remember that it is pretty much impossible to recreate someone else’s prose faithfully no matter how diligent you are. And, really, do you want to? Aren’t you really trying to use this exercise as a way to develop your own path and your own place?

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I think of the excellent reproductions of paintings that always have some tell-tale change in brush stroke or color tone that eventually reveals the forgery. The copy is acknowledged for the likeness but not the talent. I wouldn’t mind a future reviewer acknowledging my influences, but that is where I would like it to stop. And since we are not discussing con games so much as aspirations and inspiration, you should only be concerned with achieving a level of competence and confidence to make your effort worthwhile. You don’t want to be an anonymous copy or, worse, a ridiculed imitator, but an authority in your own right only giving credit to your predecessors rather than being shadowed by them.

I want to stand on my own and become PART of the group. The process of learning from our teachers should create a goal of no longer needing them anymore.

Now, if you do some research, you can find examples of how different writing styles yield very different images of the same scene. Some of the best examples come from translations. There is never a dearth of discussion among translators and scholars as to how one should approach the translation of another’s work. Do you reproduce word-for-word as close as possible? Do you reproduce the essence of the meaning using the best vocabulary choices available to you in the language that this text will be translated into? Which of these two choices will do the the author’s work the most credit? I think of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, the modern Irish poet who writes solely in the Irish language. Poets and authors such as Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian have done her work justice in their renditions. I’ve not read reviews of the many translations of her work into other languages, but as for the English versions, she seems to approve. Ultimately, the translator must be working in the original authors’ interests, but choice of wording and style is subjective. Some will like the translation, some won’t.

Emulation is not translation of course, but you will want to make similar decisions. Do you borrow the ideas and the essence of the tales or do you reject these and find your own words to create similar worlds? Some will like your choices, some will not. As long as you can stand by those choices and explain readily and easily why your work’s final presentation is as it stands, you can feel confident in your work. If you are still not so sure as to what your voice will be or how much you wish to remove yourself from your predecessors, keep drafting, practicing, sharing, and editing. You’ll find your way.

Here is an exercise that I give to my literature students to help them understand what is it like to create some of the works they are reading:

We choose one of the authors we have read, and I have them write about two paragraphs on a topic in the writer’s voice. So, in one of my classes, we had read Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, a text from the 1930s that fits in the genre of Speculative Fiction (pre-sci fi or fantasy terminology). This story is dominated by references to myth and philosophy all in relation to the development of identity and perception. I asked them simply to describe “A Snowy Day” using Finney’s voice. The results were spectacular and very different. We all started with the same sources, and created very different worlds.

This is what I hope that emulation of and influence from an author can do for you: Help you create your own “snowy day.”

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Heron Moon Press

I am an adjunct assistant professor of English at Pace University in NY, adjunct faculty in English at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ, an online member of the adjunct faculty at SNHU College of Online and Continuing Education, as well as a freelance editor and writer. For many years, I've taught, guided, and tutored many individuals from those as young as kindergarten age to Grad-school students. I've worked on fiction, nonfiction, and memoirs. What has given me the greatest pleasure, is when I have students get together in a group, and create a story together. I offer the theme (e.g., Create a version of Red Riding Hood) and they run with it. I hope to offer this community collaboration to many more people. The goal is to prove that you don't have to be alone to write, you don't have to offer yourself up alone to the group, you can collaborate and offer the world (yes, the world is the community) a chance to create a narrative together. The results have been amazing.

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