New Life

For several years in a row we grew sunflowers in our backyard. The sunflower is an impressive plant in full bloom, and from time to time I would wonder how I would render into words what I felt when I beheld them. We eventually bought a print of “Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh and hung it in our living room. It seemed to me that Van Gogh had rendered with paint what I would have liked to render with words.

As I understand it, there are painters who replicate the works of The Masters, sometimes to be sold as expensive forgeries. Their technique is so refined that it generally takes an expert in the imitated artist’s work to tell whether a painting is a forgery or the real thing.

Whenever I hear artists, whether painters or writers or composers, discussing craft or technique I think of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and these highly skilled replicators. If a work of art were only a work of craft, of technique, why would anyone with such skill bother imitating what someone has already painted? Since you have the same skill as the masters, why bother with forgery?

The answer, of course, is that Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” was not a product of technique. Van Gogh perceived the beauty of the sunflowers within himself and translated this perception to the canvas. The technique aided greatly in this translation, but first and foremost came the perception. Moreover, after the perception and before the translation came the willingness to share what was neither Van Gogh nor the flowers but a marriage of the two.

This is not such a simple choice. The forger already knows how the world will receive what he is replicating. Van Gogh did not have this luxury before he dipped his brush. Such is the price you pay when creating something new. Technique without original perception is as dead as a hammer. Technique in service to perception can bring anything to life.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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False Limitation

When I was a young writer, I did what a lot of other young writers do and looked to those writers I most admired to guide me to where I wanted to go. That was the theory, anyway, but mostly I just imitated. This is somewhat useful to learn about form, but only for a short time. Eventually, both in the kind of stories you tell and how you tell them, you have to go your own way, and the sooner you do so the better.

I reached a point, in fact, where I simply stopped reading other fiction writers. If a writer had a distinctive and compelling voice I inevitably found myself parroting him or her when I set to my own work. The result was some Frankenstein amalgamation of our voices, as clumsy and unattractive as the monster himself.

Because of this job I am reading fiction again, and I happy to report I seem to have inoculated myself against the affects other voices.  More to the point, I am now able to learn from these writers. For instance, at the time I was reading Karl Marlantes’s debut masterpiece Matterhorn, I was finishing the last draft of m own novel. Matterhorn follows a platoon of American soldiers through the jungles of Viet Nam. Marlantes did as good a job as I have ever encountered of rendering the relentless physical discomfort of the soldiers. The rain, the heat, and the humidity became like a musical score against which the action was played out.

My novel wasn’t set in Viet Nam, but my characters were out of doors and they were travelling.  That it was cold in my book instead of hot as it was in his didn’t matter. What he showed me was not how to render cold or hot, but that if you do so thoughtfully and purposefully the results can be effective. Until reading Matterhorn, I avoided this sort of description in my fiction because I thought it simply bogged down the story as the writer constantly reminded the reader where the characters were standing. I don’t think that anymore.

Marlantes was like a track athlete who cracked some time barrier that I, at least, had never broken. I do not need to study his training regimen or copy his running style to reach that time myself—that it can be done is enough. This is all humans have ever needed. Once the dike of limitation is breached, we flood through in masses.

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Securely Original

Occasionally someone will ask me how I find something to say about writing five times a week. I ask myself this sometimes as well, but the truth is even in conversation I am prone to take any topic and begin my contribution, “You know, it’s a lot like writing . . .”

To me, everything is. I’m a bit myopic that way, and I suppose my constant writing metaphors might sound like retold war stories to my friends and family, but writing is the leans through which I have chosen to view the world this go-around and so thank heavens for this space where I am required to do what I seem to want to do all the time anyway.

But imitation is always a close enemy of the writer. First, as young writers, we might find ourselves imitating the writers we admire, and then, once we become established and we have contracts and obligations, we might imitate ourselves. If it worked once, it will work again. If you imitate yourself, you know you have allowed the work to become a job. This is not a crime; a writer should be allowed to want a good job like so many others.  But the writer who takes up the job of writing should understand what they have traded and decide for sure this is what they want.

Whether we are imitating someone else or ourselves, imitation hopes to gain security from the past, where everything is known and has happened already. It is perfectly legitimate to seek security, but true security is balance, not stasis. We are all propelled perpetually forward into the shadows on the conveyer belt of time, and perhaps our foremost task here on earth is to become accustomed to the endless movement.

As writers, as with everyone, this means making peace with the unknown. If you make peace with the unknown, you are making peace with the true source of the stories you tell. Each story begins unknown to us, but only in its form. A story’s essence, that shapeless trajectory of thought that attracted us, is known to us—if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to write it. Resist imitation, then, not so reviewers will praise your originality, not so you might sell more books, but for security. Your originality is your acceptance of the moment, which like it or not is where you are.

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