In school, authors’ prose sometimes affected me so much that, when I sat down to write about their work, my sentences slid into their syntax and diction. I sounded like them as I wrote about them. One semester, I studied Hemingway and Faulkner together, and I can only imagine my schizophrenic compositions—genteel and muscular, ornate and brutal, loquacious and guarded, perfumed and earthy. With no style of my own, I didn’t steer by their stars so much as zigzagged between, entering and exiting gravities, trailing cosmic dust from each meeting.
My voice is my own now because, soon enough, every writer’s prose collides with so many authors and teachers that it doesn’t show any one crash too garishly. A practiced writer, we’re told, finds a path between styles and utters a distinctive style, one that’s fluent, idiosyncratic, and accurate as it presents writer and subject.
Arriving at style seems something to celebrate, but I’d like to go back. I hate polish. I wonder if losing my original energy has ruined me.
Over the last couple of weeks, one of my classes has been studying Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Much of the book is direct and plain—the boy and the father gather a lot of wood and take off and put on their clothes many many times. But then McCarthy lapses into lyrical Old Testament riddling equivalent to cured tobacco, twisted in skeins and crying deep, redolent resin. The prose is new, so new it seems language needed inventing to express just what it says.
We mortals don’t write that way. Most of the time I appeal to conventions and apply rules I’ve accumulated. You won’t find many “There is/are” in my writing, and I twist into a pretzel to avoid the passive voice. I don’t make decisions or offer explanations, I decide and explain. No paragraph ever begins with the same word as the last. I budget I’s. I don’t like the word “that.” Sentence variety matters and often turns me back to diagnose the last paragraph for its rhythm and surprise. I will break rules just to break them.
Clearly, something convinces me these fetishes contribute to clear, emphatic prose—and maybe they help—but they prohibit rather than inspire. They keep me on course and out of woods writers like McCarthy love.
“Genius,” Emerson said, “is its own end and draws its means and the style of its architecture from within.” When the architecture of my prose matches my dim and hidden mental architecture, I’m happy. When my end is irretrievably embedded in its means, I’m overjoyed. In my best moments, thoughts and emotions appear untranslated and fresh.
That doesn’t happen enough.
Yet I can draw inspiration from McCarthy. If the artist’s job is self-expression, then anything received is suspect. The truth you obey knows no rules. Even imitating yourself is out. Another artist’s approach could be right. Yesterday’s approach might be right too. But you can’t be yourself without continually asking who you are, what you see and understand right now, and how you might let your original voice out.