I really started writing the day after I read J. D. Salinger’s For Esme- With Love and Squalor. I’d told stories before, but it was at that moment that I wanted to be a writer. So I shamelessly copied his form and wrote a vastly inferior copy of his story with the names changed.
I was fourteen, and it never saw the light of day. It’s what fourteen year olds do. Emulation and play are how kids learn. I still learn that way. But I’m a little more careful about it now.
Instead of writing other people’s stories, I will attempt to write with their voice. I fell in love with Milan Kundera after reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and sat down at the computer to try a few paragraphs in my best Kundera impersonation. It was not terribly successful, but it did open up some old forgotten passages back in the lost parts of my lungs. I realized how little I used the word “because.” It put words to the vague ideas I’d touched on about everyday life eclipsing the massive outside world, no matter how oppressive it becomes.
(This is a theme I often use, either in fantasy, horror, or non-genre, because it is one of my most comforting thoughts.)
The desire for emulation puts a strain on one’s natural voice, and builds a stronger one. If you adopt the voice of a writer stronger than your own, you have to work out, stretch the muscles. The results can be surprising. It can even build your confidence.
I was (and still am) an intensely shy person in high school. I hardly spoke, even in my favorite classes. And one day, for no real reason other than a hair-brained idea in lunch period, I wore a pair of hot pink star shaped sunglasses into my choir class, and kept them on for the full period. (My choir director complimented their audacity at the beginning of class, so I figured I’d keep them on.) And from behind the star sunglasses, I was able to speak up without the usual hesitation that can lead to a mild stutter, and I offered opinions, cracked jokes, and ended up feeling ten times as strong as I had any other day. I was star soprano, at least behind the sunglasses.
Best part is, it stuck with me. Not all of it… like, I still failed jokes and tripped over my sentences, but I was able to talk to people. And that’s pretty big for a girl who takes on average 6 months to a year to begin a conversation. (I’m better now. Got it down to weeks. Big steps.)
Wearing a different face lets you try new things. It offers just enough of a shield to expand that comfort zone. And the funny thing with masks is, when you wear them, you tend to expand enough to fill them. Costume parties are magnificent in this fashion; everyone is just a little bigger than they really are. And they come away from the mask with that extra hanging on. I was a raven once… I still have a few feathers in my bones.
I’ve tried on Kundera and Jansson and Dahl. I am influenced by everyone I read (and everything I watch, and play, and hear…), but I can choose how I want to expand by playing at voices. And yes, it is only play. I can never really match the people I’m aping. Not even close. My own voice is hella loud and glued on every inch of me. I can’t escape it. But it can grow, and I can train its direction.