This approach appeals to us because it seems at first blush to offer a quick path to perfection in our writing. We all want to improve, and the idea that if we just follow three easy steps we'll attain to the literary heights is awfully tempting. In my post, however, I talked about something we probably all know and must simply be reminded of: the fact that writing is not mechanics, but
a process of growing art.
This current post is something of an extension of that basic notion, for even after we're rooted in it, there is still the difficult issue of knowing how to encourage that growing art to grow. We get to the place where we realize, "Oh goodness. My writing seriously needs help, doesn't it?" Maybe the pieces we've written before aren't so bad, maybe they're total rubbish, but either way there ought to come a point sooner or later in time when we realize it is not the best that it can be. We come to grips with the fact that there are writers out there who just frankly do it - or did it - better than we, and then we begin to wonder how to coax further growth out of our own writing.
"Learn from the best" ought, really and truly, to be trumpeted more often than it is. Read the Greats. Don't settle for mediocre writers, the ones who don't do it as well as you, or who write on the same level as you, or who are maybe a little better: digest those writers whose works amaze you, blow you away, and leave you inspired (and perhaps a little jealous) after you've picked yourself up and pieced yourself back together. "A man of ability," wrote William G. T. Shedd, "for the chief of his reading, should select such works as he feels beyond his own power to have produced." What ho, Mr. Shedd, you said it truly!
Unfortunately, even this excellent advice can be warped, and writers who do try to "learn from the best" frequently fall into another trap of believing that it is also necessary to copy the best. I wouldn't say this is always conscious; perhaps the underlying reasoning is mere mistaken logic, where writers suppose that if this man writes this way, and is reckoned a Great, then to be great we must write this way as well. We're told we are supposed to imitate these people, and to an extent - the extent of a child following in the footsteps of an adult, before that child has learned to walk and direct himself - that is true. But we've got to be wary of taking the principle too far.
We learn from others, ones who have gone before and ones who are going along with us: true. We glean ruses, tactics, and strategies from them: also true. We are not, however, meant to piece together little bits and pieces of authors' styles into something we call "our own" (and if we do, it can only ever be a literary Frankenstein's monster - because no one can forge the original author's signature with the same flair). Even less are we meant to pick one favorite author and imitate them in all things. That is to say -
we should not try writing characters like Dickens
we should not try writing romance like Austen
we should not try writing emotion and description like Sutcliff
we should not try writing an allegory like Lewis
and we really, truly, for the love of peachy goodness shouldn't try writing fantasy like Tolkien.
For me, this meant a realization that I am not Jenny and should not try to write like her. I do not share her poetry-prose flair, and to attempt it would appear forced. I can certainly look up to her and try to write as well as she does, but always in my own style and what people call "voice." I admire R.L. Stevenson's descriptions and the masterful plots of Dickens. Austen's wit is positively hilarious. Sutcliff can take your heart and wring it like a sponge. Lewis and Tolkien were masters of their art. We ought to read them, look up to them, learn from them (and never stop doing so!), but we must also find our own ground, plant our roots in it and say, "This is my place. I'll gain nutrients from all the writers I come across, but I am confident enough in my own voice not to mimic that of others."
It's a growing art, this writing business. But it is important to realize that it varies from one person to the next, and we're not meant to try to graft ourselves into some other writer's vine - so that when someone asks us, "Would you rather write like this author or this author?" our response should be, "Um, cake, please?"