The monkey see, monkey do trap

Andel I

Silk’s Post #14 — I can’t write and read at the same time.

This is different from the jokey problem of walking while chewing gum. It’s not that I can’t multi-task, god knows. That’s all I do is multi-task. In fact I think the only thing I do without the distraction of three or four other balls in the air is sleep.

No, my problem is: I mimic.

When I read a good action thriller with lots of short, punchy, three-word sentences, I begin to write short, punchy, three-word sentences. When I read literature with long complex sentences and five dollar words, I start writing unstoppable sentences that turn into paragraphs with a hundred commas. When I read Ian Rankin, I begin to write as though I speak with a Scottish accent, and when I read Bill Bryson I suddenly seem to sound funnier — and slightly, if awkwardly, British. (I only wish I could mimic Martin Cruz Smith).

You see my dilemma?

Writers – and the large galaxy of people who seem to make a pretty good living coaching writers on how to write – are always talking about how important it is to read, read, read if you want to write, write, write. Don’t any of them have my monkey-see-monkey-do problem?

But if I admit it (and you know that’s a writer’s way of warning you they’re about to admit something), I have a deeper problem with reading while I’m writing. It all sounds so much better than my own work. Probably not all of it really is better, but there it is in ink, on a page – and there’s my work in pixels, on a screen. Ink gives a certain je ne sais quoi to writing. A certain intimidation factor. For one thing, it’s no longer deletable, and that seems to add to its substance and legitimacy.

This second reading problem, however, is pretty clearly a psychological one. Writer’s self doubt. The remedy for it would seem to be getting published (though I suspect that from time to time even some well-respected, published authors still wrestle with the dark conviction that they’re actually frauds and it’s only a matter of time before they’re found out).

But back to mimicry.

Agents are always going on about how they’re looking for a fresh voice. By that, I’m quite sure they do not mean writers who’ve cleverly learned how to sound like other writers. (On the other hand, watch how a surprise runaway bestseller will send them scrambling to sign up exactly that … the next J.K. Rowling, for instance).

So what is “voice” exactly? This post is definitely in my voice. You can probably hear me speaking it, see the expressions on my face, and “read” my body language. The eye rolls. The resigned grins. The hand-wringing and the head wagging. The devilish sparkle in my eye. I actually find it easy to project my “voice” when I’m the first-person “protagonist” in expository non-fiction. I’ve been practising it for a long time as a writer in the commercial marketplace.

But applying this to fiction is a very different challenge. No doubt, there’s a little bit of the author in every memorable protagonist, but too much of the author on the page – as we’ve all been warned in the strongest possible terms – is one of the cardinal sins in fiction. “Author intrusion!” must be second only to “cliché alert!” as an often seen, and always dreaded, margin note.

Joe amused and intrigued us with his post about “becoming a 16-year-old girl” so he could write in the voice of his protagonist. And here’s where mimicry can be a boon. Observe, listen and learn from real life, and if you’re a good mimic you can become a character who is nothing like the real you. If you’re really empathic, you can begin to see the world through your character’s eyes and think with your character’s brain.

So this mimicry thing is actually a pretty useful skill. In the right circumstances.

The problem, for me anyway, comes when I’m reading another author and being sucked into the head of someone else’s protagonist while trying to write from the viewpoint of my own hero. It’s like trying to listen to two pieces of music at the same time. I lose my beat. And I’m guessing that when Joe was writing his YA fantasy, he didn’t have a couple of Jack Reacher thrillers on his bedside table for his nighttime reading.

I have heard at least one well-known author claim to eschew reading while writing, to keep the “voice pollution” out of his head. The question then becomes: when do you read if you’re writing all the time?

An interesting dilemma, this monkey-see-monkey-do trap. Can you read and write at the same time?  If not, how do you deal with it?

10 thoughts on “The monkey see, monkey do trap

  1. I suffer from mimicryitis myself, and my only (unsatisfactory) solution has been to read less as I try to write more. It comes down to a choice of which foot I’ll use to kick myself in my own ass. Then I’ll either hurt the knee of the foot I chose, or say OUCH, no matter what foot I chose. :-{

    • Hah! Who said writers don’t get enough exercise? All this ass-kicking takes a lot of energy! Thanks for the comment Jerry!

  2. Every writer goes through this. There’s a part of growing as a writer, of finding your own voice when you’ll both deliberately and unconsciously imitate every single writer you read and admire. I think part of becoming a mature writer is imitation, so you can internalize what it is about the writing you admire that makes you admire it – and that adds to what will become your unique voice. It comes and goes through your career, I think, especially during periods of growth, or preparation for a breakthrough in your development.

    Self doubt never goes away, not if you’re trying to grow and develop through your entire career, and everything you write will make you question your talent, your quality, your ability to suck the reader in and make the story real for them, to get across what you’re trying to say, not in “author intrusion” and lecturing, but in the spaces between the words, between the lines of text on the page.

    What I find helps with mimicry is not to stop reading, but to stop reading the particular genre in which I’m writing – so while I never stop reading YA, unless it’s for research, I won’t read, say hard SF when I’m working on a YA SF. I won’t, except for research, read fairy tales or reworkings of fairy tales while I’m working on a fairy tale based mid-grade (which I’m doing right now). That way, I get to write, and to read, but there’s less chance of a) comparing my work to other, better books and authors writing the stuff I am, b) stealing ideas outright, either deliberately or unconsciously and c) restricting myself to what’s been done before, and slavishly following the safe path. I couldn’t ever stop reading, I think I’d go crazier than I already am.

    Maybe that would work for you – give it a try and see what happens.

    • Bev, you’re becoming my Yoda (and I mean that in the most appreciative possible way)! I hope I can bring the same tenacity, wisdom and patience to my budding fiction career as you have. Thanks so much for your helpful comments.

  3. Great post, Silk. The closest thing to my ‘real’ voice can be found when I write my blogs, specifically my travel blogs. That’s 100% me, unfiltered, unchecked, and unconcerned with silly things like spelling and grammar and structure and plot…
    But the other styles I adopt are me as well. Hardboiled-Joe. Literary-Joe. Bryson-Joe (my personal wish is to be as funny as him.) They’re all me. No matter how much we think we mimic others, we are first and foremost ourselves.

    • Maybe this role playing is one of the things that attracts us to writing. In a way, it’s a lot like acting, isn’t it? I like ALL the Joes, by the way.

  4. I have no shortage of self-doubt–uncertainty is my middle name–but it never seems to prompt me to imitate other writers. That’s fortunate, I should say, because I have turned out five novels in the last four years, and never not writing. I would not want to give up reading. In my view, a writer who doesn’t read impoverishes themselves and therefor their writing.

    I love and respect good writing and even can envy a truly gifted and particularly successful writer. At the urging of my 11-year-old daughter, I am currently reading the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer . Marvelous stuff, great fun, brilliantly conceived and executed, and a smashing literary and financial success. Could I ever write like Colfer? Perhaps, but maybe not. Would I ever write like Colfer. Never. I have my own style and approach to material developed over nearly 50 years of professional writing experience. I’m an old dog; I’ve got my own tricks.

    –Larry Constantine (pen name, Lior Samson, author of Chipset:

    • Many thanks for your thoughtful comments Larry. Like you, I have no inclination to imitate on purpose. My tendencies to mimic are unintended – if not unconscious, then at least semi-conscious. It’s more along the lines of tapping your foot to a beat (someone else’s), then finding the beat has stuck in your head. My mimicry is like that of a friend of mine, who tends to mimic people’s accents when he’s talking to them. Far from mocking them, what he’s really doing is trying to be empathetic by talking their lingo. He has no idea he’s doing it.

      The subject of “voice” leads to some terrific discussion, and I really appreciate you contributing yours to the conversation.

  5. I was talking to my husband about this recently. I myself have not read a lot. In fact, I’m the “black sheep” of writers everywhere getting that ever common look of doubt and disdain whenever I admit it openly (“Oh, you’re one of those…”). I mimic excellently. Because of this, I shy away when people say, “Oh my gosh, you’ve GOT to read this book!” At times I want to, but when I’m harboring a new story, I don’t want the influence because it is just too easy to make the latest movie or story become part of my next story line.

    What I do is find a quiet time and focus my mind. I put out all distraction and ask as if I were a reporter, “What is going on? Who are you (to the character in mind)? How will you, the character, react now?” After some practice, answers come back with some or little effort and it gets on my pages easier. So far, no plagerism has been committed. *crosses fingers*

    What helped me most is writing as if with an obsession, without distraction of other books or media. Then, in between edits, I forget about it. Really forget about it. I can’t afford to be constantly connected to my writing because then when other influences come in, it warps. Or worse, I doubt. I told my husband that I want to be a writer that connects people to a new, fresh world through my writing. I can’t do that if I’m mimicking.

    People crave new things and not everyone connects to a writer’s style as they do another. There’s always that favorite author because they can connect to the world the author is portraying the easiest with the most enjoyment. Self-doubt as to whether it’s good enough or “not like anything out there”, I think, is best accomplished by not allowing anything else to get in the pot of creative concoctions.

    I have a deep desire to design my own fantasy world from the ground up like Tolkien and so many others but if I hold my work up to theirs, I’m gonna be crushed before I even search for a publication to send to. This is because I’m trying to write what THEY wrote rather than let the story come to me in it’s purest form. I write it as if I were the only one who knew of it’s existence; that I’m the only who could tell the story about these people in these situations.

    Admittedly, this may be a lot to ask of a writer (especially new ones). But it is my firm belief that just as everyone in this world in unique in their own way, if they are true to themselves as a writer, there will be no doubt that it is their voice alone that comes out on the page.

  6. I appreciate your thoughtful comments Robyn, and believe me I empathize with your attempts to be original, creative and focused! Best of luck on your writing … and by all means, do it YOUR way!

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