Advice to Writers: Steal

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

From Carol Peters ablogging, a link to Mistakes Poets Make. While the last two sections of this wonderful article are specific to poetry and its own unique circles, the first section “On Writing” can mostly be applied to any kind of creative writing. The very first piece of advice is the best, in my opinon:

To begin with, imitate as many major poets as possible: to imagine you have an innate ‘voice’ independent of other writers is pure vanity.

Imitation is a great starting point for any writing project – it grounds your work in something recognizable and gives it a clear sense of limits. (I’ve never been a believer of wide-open writing; you need some kind of confinement, some kind of boundary, to work against. Artistic freedom isn’t being able to do whatever you want, but being able to work within the limits you’re given.) You give your ideas / plot / language a defined shape by looking back to past writers and works, a clear guideline to help direct one’s craft.

If you have a unique perspective (and most interesting people, never mind writers, do), it’ll develop and come out on its own, working with those established limits as well as defining new boundaries when it has to. You’ll decide that Gaddis may not do something in a novel, but it sounds right in your own work and so the Gaddis influence has fulfilled its duty and can be let go.

Sometimes the desire for imitation is taken too far, of course – the Hollywood cliche of writers describing their screenplays as “x meets y” is a necessary shorthand to sell a work to the commerce-minded studios. But that’s what you get for living in a world of commerce and, if anything, the commercial belief that there’s nothing new under the sun is a solid antidote for writers who believe their works are purely innovative and unlike anything else before it.

Always remember: “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.”

That’s not mine, either. I stole it from someone.