Here’s the question: should I write the way I do, or the way I want to?
What I mean is; when it comes to writing, I have a unique style. Every writer does. From the moment you learn your ABCs, you’ve begun garnering yourself a sui generis approach. By the time you’ve conquered cursive, you’re well on your way to distinguishing your personal literary voice.
This approach is not set in stone; your method will, by necessity, continue to evolve over time.
Yet by the time you reach my ancient age, your style, technique, method, or however you wish to classify your talent will more or less have solidified, or at least reached a thick clay-like consistency. This is not to say you or I are unable to evolve further, but it does mean that it’s going to get more and more difficult as the decades zip by.
There are a few documented cases of writers who can alter their style at whim to suit the needs of the work. We (or I, anyway) call them chameleonovelists. As proof, I offer up Dan Simmons, an author whose novels bounce from hard sci-fi to metafictional fantasy to hardboiled crime noir to historical thriller to epic horror. You’d be hard pressed to say they all came from the same man as, save their overt quality, the approaches and techniques used in each book vary wildly. He has evolved to survive and thrive in the kill-or-be-kill wilds of literature.
I am not a chameleonovelist. At best I am a high-strung chihuahauthor, skittering about below the radar, hiding in a purse, annoying the hell out of you. Most of the time I’m really a sloth. Just a sloth. Can’t think of a way to mesh the word with something akin to my profession. Closest I can get is slothespian. Not quite right. Slothographer? Slauthor!
So before I reach the cranky old man yelling at kids to get the hell off my lawn, I pay my taxes, I’ll call the police on you, you punks! stage of my life, I’d like to push myself a bit and evolve. Or as the creationists may call it, pray myself a miracle.
I read John Irving, and the depths of his characterizations astound me. Margaret Atwood floors me with her descriptions. Kurt Vonnegut, the maestro of everything good in this world, surprises me every time with his signature mixture of humour, pathos, and cruelty.
Yet I don’t want to write as they write. I don’t want their style, exactly. Nor do I want to be accused of aping my betters with crude pastiches better suited to the internet pages of fan fiction.
I want their books.
I want to have written Cat’s Cradle. It should have been me who penned The World According to Garp. Is it fair that Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and not me? Let me answer for you, no it is not. I was only eight at the time; by the rules of fair play, Adams should have waited until I was at least twenty. Then I would have at least had a shot.
Because these books have been a part of me for so long I cannot imagine my life without them. Vonnegut, Irving, Adams, Atwood, Stephen King, Philip K. Dick, Octavia E. Butler, Ray Bradbury: these authors influenced my lifepath far more than school, parents, hormones, or religion could ever have dare hoped. I cannot go a day without summoning up an Adamsesque pun on the nature of the universe, a P.K. Dick-like observance of utter bleakness, or a Bradburyian moment of astonishment at the beauty of the world.
And so now I’m stuck here, battering the keyboard in the hopes that one day I can join them as true peers; one day, people will look at the world through my eyes, and feel they’ve come to understand something just a bit better.
I know that copying their styles is not a conduit to success or happiness or personal evolution. I know that, despite their best intentions, there will always be a piece of me in my soul.
I know this. I have come to grips with this. I accept this.
And then Irving publishes another novel, and the whole thing starts anew, and I read a passage that causes me to pause and mutter why couldn’t I have written that?