Be Derivative and Find Yourself

Here’s the best writing advice I can offer any writer just starting out: be derivative. Don’t try to “find your own voice.” Don’t think about world building or unique characters or unknown alien races. Don’t develop your own plucky narrative style that announces ‘you’ on every page. And don’t do something shocking to set the world on fire. Instead, do  what your favorite authors do. Mimic their style, their characters, their narrative, even their plots. Don’t steal—and definitely don’t plagiarize. But emulate, copy, pose, ape, and mimic. There will be time to be original and groundbreaking later. However, if you really want to be a writer (rather than someone who just sells books) you have to go through the all-important stage of mimicry necessary to create great art—or just books worth reading. It’s the most important way to “write what you know.” You know? 

In the Preface to the second edition of her novel, Alexander’s Bridge, Willa Cather wrote,

The writer, at the beginning of his career, is more often interested in his discoveries about his art than in the homely truths which have been about him from his cradle.  He is likely to feel that writing is one of the most important things, if not the most important thing, in the world, and that what he learns about it is his one really precious possession…I think usually the young writer must have his affair with the external material he covets; must imitate and strive to follow the masters he most admires, until he finds he is starving for reality and cannot make this go any longer.  Then he learns that it is not the adventure he sought, but the adventure that sought him, which has made the enduring mark upon him (1922).

Cather considered Alexander’s Bridge a colossal failure. Her first novel, she wrote it under the spell of Henry James, then the greatest living American novelist. As she finished the novel, she had already started a short story that would lead to her own great novels—novels about her childhood in Nebraska and the hardscrabble immigrants who tried to make a new life on the Plains. However, though the novel disappointed her (and is little read today), she realized that it was necessary, her first fling with great art that initiated her into the world of fiction. By imitating and borrowing and posing as her favorite writers, she learned who they were and how they thought. In a way, she saw herself by looking through their writing.

It’s a bit like wearing a Halloween costume: at first you’re like, “wow, I’m a vampire, or Chewbacca, or Donald Trump!” Gradually, you become more comfortable in the clothes, and you start imitating their moves and mannerisms. Then, at the end of the night, you take off the costume and feel relieved to be back in your own skin. It’s suddenly liberating to be yourself—an identity full of power and possibility. What can you be now that you’re yourself again?

Instructors of writing often tell you to “be yourself,” and “write what you know.” This sounds a little like someone telling you to “act naturally” or “just be yourself” on a first date (not always the best advice). In writing, however, this means something different: writing what you know isn’t necessarily who you are as a teenager, or a nurse, or a truck driver. It can also mean writing what you know as a writer: who you read, what you love, the characters you want to be. You can’t be the writer you’ll grow into, not at first; in the beginning you have to play dress up, so to speak. You have to reach into the closet and choose an outfit. More than any other career, writing is a masquerade, a choice of disguise. No writer, not even the most accomplished, is completely original: we’re all a copy of a copy of a copy. Eventually, though, the copies become so overwritten and so cross-influenced that they become unique, almost like a cassette tape recorded over so many times that you can hear different songs going at once (and yes, I’m completely dating myself).

Cather reminds us that “it is not the adventure he sought, but the adventure that sought him, which has made the enduring mark upon him.” As a writer you never know who you are or even what story you’re trying to tell. It has to find you; it tells you who you are, what story you’re writing. So how do you start writing if you’re not supposed to know? Simply by being yourself—which means not being you at all. Be derivative. Embrace it boldly. Learn what motivates and inspires you as a writer and copy it down. Eventually, after umpteen stories and maybe a few novels (or aborted novels) you’ll hit on something that astonishes you. Something that is ‘you’ in the most essential, provocative way, something so obvious you knew it all along. Of course, writers can’t know anything until they write it. Writing makes ideas real for the writer and his or her readers. We believe it when we read it.

Until then, don’t worry about what it means to be a writer. Just sin boldly in writing and do the “wrong” thing, and don’t worry about who you are or who you should be. If you love it, write it. That’s really what they mean when they say “write what you know.” No one knows who they are. We only know what we love. And sometimes, even that takes a lifetime to figure out.