Finding my voice has proven to be the most difficult part about being a writer. Since I started writing a few years ago, I have been tormented with the unreasonable fear that I sound like whoever I am reading at the moment. And often when I write, I experience the chiasmatic sensation of exhilaration and plagiarism: it excites me to be intensely engaged with a text and to recognize work being done on the syntactical level; however, I tend to feel like a fraud, a literary pirate…and an unsuccessful one at that…when I catch myself using a particular author’s style or lexicon (Confession: I have cribbed my punctuation habits from an amalgamation of Pynchon and Faulkner—hence the ellipses…dashes…semi-colons…all working to protract tiresome digressions.) Anyway, it always takes some time to sort through these contrary feelings. I tell myself that everyone learns by reading those who come before them. I try to ease my anxieties about literary piracy by calling transgressions ‘references’ or ‘allusions.’ But the self-doubt and self-consciousness remains, and I find myself delaying projects in order to more fully develop my own distinct style. I think that the paralysis induced by self-doubt comes from a fear of observation. Whatever I may tell myself about learning from mistakes, my ego always finds a way to make its voice heard; so rather than venturing out on my own—to make mistakes and hopefully discover something about my writing along the way—I use my favorite author’s as blueprints for style, imagery and diction. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with this, I feel as if it has hampered my ability to sit down at my computer and write on a regular basis.
I think that this sensation taps into something commonly experienced by those of us who write. On one hand there are the constant confrontations with failure and the subsequent fear of ineptitude. And this is made worse by the fact that we are not the arbiters of our work; rather, our work, an extension of ourselves, stands bare and defenseless against the criticisms of a detached audience. And what worse criticism could be leveled than banality or pedantry? I don’t know about you, but it terrifies me to think that I may be received as unoriginal. Which is why I have committed myself to a new exercise that will hopefully develop confidence in my voice independent from those who influence me. But first, I would like to demonstrate how engaging with an author can re-shape prose.
I’m currently working on my capstone essay about the process of myth-making in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, particularly how the narrators construct representations of black and female subjectivities that ensure subordination. I am using a theoretical framework, as laid out in Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, to discuss overlaying systems (culture, race, gender, sexuality, law) and the multilateral exertion of power in the Postbellum South. The idea has proven to be sufficiently difficult to untangle without worrying about how the two authors, Faulkner and Foucault, have influenced my writing style. Both authors craft long, winding sentences that operate by circumlocution rather than strict definition. What I mean is that they dance around what they are trying to say; they surround their desired concept rather than trying to pin it down with a needle. This style does not work well in a form that requires concision. Nevertheless, I find myself preyed upon by paronomastic predilections, my love for language and alliteration, and the unwinding beauty of thoughts scrolled down screen—a stream of syllogisms in need syntactically for structure that mediates and facilitates the care and complexity manifest in its discursive elements—like the ramifications of warbling wistaria vine twice-bloomed in breezes still of summer and reaching not only for the underlaid lattice but by trace scent as well…miasmal-distillant: an effluvium moving as if a shadow, nearly unobservable, but essential for the auditur to truly know what lay before them.
Lately I have written a lot of sentences like that one…and they typically take so long to craft that I lose whatever momentum had propelled me to the keyboard in the first place. What’s worse, I lost my train of thought while working on that just now…so forgive me if the rest of this blog post goes to shit. Anyway, while that sentence explains how syntax and imagery can enliven whatever you are trying to say, it defeats itself on the surface by applying the very strategy that it touts. It requires to be unwound, and the influence of Faulkner and Foucault’s writing styles have had a negative impact in this scenario. Repeatedly, these types of mistakes remind me that I have yet to establish an independent voice. I lack confidence in my own prose that should act to resist the impulse to imitate other authors. So to remedy this, I have purchased a cloth-bound notebook (this way I can slip it between books on my bookshelf and not fear someone cracking it open.) I have promised myself to write in it every day for the next month, at which point I will assess the viability of this technique in establishing my own voice. I have given myself a few ground rules to make sure that I avoid some of the pitfalls that I noted above:
For me, disconnection is paramount in this exercise. I cannot try to do this on my computer because I will violate every rule stated above. These rules intend to promote continuity of thought and discourse, which I believe to be fundamental in mapping out thought-processes and idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, should you want to adopt this idea, adaptation is obviously permitted. I work best in the mornings, so I use that time to my advantage. Others may prefer to work late at night. I prefer sleep. Finally, one last point about finding an independent voice: influence from other writers will be and should be apparent. I don’t want to be misunderstood as thinking that a writer’s voice must exist in a vacuum. Community and communication exist before, and are essential to independent expression. It would be foolish to believe that a truly singular voice could exist in language—a system that operates by reference. My own qualm comes from too heavy a reliance on certain authors’ style, but I will gladly use my best Faulkner impression when the mode seems appropriate. I just don’t want to spend my life as a writer chasing ghosts.
Written by Caleb S.
April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.
-T. S. Eliot
R2: The Rice Review
Rice University's undergraduate literary magazine. Here you can find event updates, monthly writing contest winners, and opinions by the R2 staff on what's new, interesting, or subject to discussion in the literary and arts world.