How many there are of us who want to write! Ah, to become a writer, to finally write that book we’ve always wanted to write! It’s almost a cliché. Yet many of us don’t bother because we can’t imagine that we can actually write clear, compelling prose or that we can write like the greats or the pros. Or we don’t feel we have the follow-through to finish a full-length book.
It seems that successful writers are to be envied for being able to sit at their desks and, with a few keystrokes, command the attention of a vast, paying readership.
Writer’s envy is as natural as the very desire to write. It’s what we do with these feelings of envy that either make us or break us as writers. If we feel we can’t write as well as the writers we admire and therefore don’t try, then we’re conquered by our own desire. If, on the other hand, we set out to try to write as well as the they do—that is, to imitate them—then we risk not writing our own story or not writing in our own voice.
Yet this second choice is, nevertheless, the right choice; it’s just that we have to keep in the back of our minds that, once we learn how our admired writer conjures his or her verbal magic, then we have to move beyond to write our own authentic selves. As they say in Zen, kill the Buddha when you meet him on the road.
I’ve known poets who say they won’t read other poets because they don’t want to be influenced. They forget that the genre of poetry, specific forms of poetry—the language itself—evolved long before the poet was ever born and “influences” him at every turn of phrase. One could argue that we even inherit our thoughts, the very desire to write poetry. Thus, the aspiring poet or writer is obliged to read as much as possible, to see what possibilities exist for writing poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, to see what’s already been “done,” and to see where his or her work fits in the stream of literature.
When I was a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at UW, poet-professor Rick Kenney taught a poetry writing workshop called Imitations, in which we set out to imitate various established closed forms, occasional poems, cultural permutations, and individual poets and their poems. I remember writing in a letter to Rick that I was sure I wouldn’t lose my identity to these other poets because I was so anxious to explore and establish my own voice as a poet.
Yet some poets do lose themselves, for years on end, emulating a certain poet. Linda Bierds, who also teaches poetry writing in the MFA program at UW, told us once that, early in her career, readers compared her work to that of Norman Dubie so often that she realized she needed to establish her own voice and style—a break with the “other,” of course, that she succeeded beautifully in making.
I have emulated many poets without guilt or shame and, I like to think, without crippling envy. I’ve tried to write like Theodore Roethke, Charles Simic, Czeslaw Milosz, Mary Oliver, and other poets of stature. I discovered that one can strive to write like another without experiencing envy and instead feel sheer admiration—a desire, via the work to learn everything possible about the poet’s craft and relationship to subject, much in the way an art student strives to replicate a famous painting while sitting in an art museum, down to the finest stroke—in order to learn what happened personally, technically, and historically in the creation of the artist’s work.
And the development of an artist’s skill, vision, and voice, I might suggest, more often than not follows the development of the art form in history. Each artist gropes through a medieval period, blossoms during a little Renaissance, tries on the finery of the Baroque, casts off every stitch of excess clothing in the name of minimalism, flourishes during an abrupt midlife Romantic period, dabbles in pointillism, screams leaping off the bridge of reason into a modern period, then collapses in a paroxysm of Post-Modernism.
Perhaps it’s natural to feel a little envious of the magic that great writers conjure. If, as a reader, we feel mesmerized by the beauty of a novel, short story, or poem, then why wouldn’t we want to conjure such magic? It’s only natural to want to wield the very power that mesmerizes us to conjure it in others—other readers.
It may be that by trying on the clothes of the writers we admire—the greats, the masters, the pros—those who command great audiences—we come to realize how we are not meant to be the very writer we admire or emulate, that we’re not at all like the master whose footprints we’ve been dogging. In other words, we come to realize who we are, how we’re distinct, how we have our own story to tell or body of words and images to share. Yet we may never have found ourselves in our totality if we hadn’t tried on the master’s silky, piney, or smoky robes.