Saturday, August 23, 2008


Imitation is the sincerest form of fluttery

You read that correctly; to imitate is to flutter or, worse, hover, fearful of straying too far from the object being imitated, whether it is a design, a sculpting, an acting performance, or the text and style of an author.

In the beginning, many of us imitate because we are led into our vision by the performance of an actor, the vision of a painter, the posture of a dancer, the imagery of a poet, the style and voice of a writer. As we do so, our work is gradually suffused by another presence, hears another voice, sees a different vision, one perhaps even directly at odds with what was originally imitated.

That presence, that vision, that emerging sound is the you within, awakening, stretching, shaking off the fleas, stepping out for love. Indeed, love of some sort becomes the motivating force in the well articulated painter or dancer or sculptor or potter or yes, even writer. Keep at it for any length of time and invariably someone following along in your wake will begin to imitate you.

Impossible, you say. Who would want to imitate me? No one, so long as you are imitating someone else. As the cost of hardcover books scoots over twenty-five dollars and the massmarket paperback over eight dollars, a simple matter of economics seeps into the mix; why would someone pay twenty-six dollars for a copy of you imitating a Stephen King or a Margaret Atwood or a Michael Chabon or Alice Munro when for the same money they can get the real thing. Why would you want to sound like someone who was always recognized as sounding like someone else or even, for that matter, being derivative of someone else?

How, you ask, do I sound like myself?

You begin by keeping some form of list or blog archive or journal of things you care about. You are not embarrassed by what you care about, nervous that it is not high minded enough or cogent or, dare I say it, important enough?

Go ahead, you can say it.

Okay, you asked. It's about you deciding what's important to you, whether such importance is social justice, moral choice, or zits on your chin. It is about what you love, hate, want beyond reason, fear, dread, resent, can't get enough of, can't wait to be rid of. It is about the someone else you want to be and the someone else you are glad not to be.

It is about such as John Cleese telling fellow Brit Digby Wolfe how psychotherapy has helped him come to terms with his anger, then apologizing because this means he isn't funny any more.

It is about you being lost, then asking yourself for directions.

One of the questions you will as a writer have to answer for literary agents and editors before a book project of yours has any chance of being encouraged is: Why are you the one to write this book? By which question it is meant, what do you bring to the project? This question presupposes another question, the answer to which you had better come to terms with: Who are you? This is not meant in a condescending sense but rather in quest of a sense of the voice the reader can expect, the salient attitude and narrative presence.

The only wrong answers are the fluttery, ambiguous ones. The right answers, the ones coming directly from your visceral centers, are the ones for you to heed.

In the Pisan Cantos, Ezra Pound gives us a clue to the matter:

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee

Henceforth, when someone asks you, Who are you to say such things? Your answer could easily be, I am a lover, a hater, a collector, a conflator; I see things differently, connect things in different ways. I am funny, angry, dismissive, emphatic, contentious. I put ketchup on eggs.


Anonymous said...

I am someone who has trouble falling asleep because she is trying to think of how to answer questions she finds on other people's blogs.

Querulous Squirrel said...

In my life, I am the most mature of wise women. In my personal writing, I am the most recalcitrant of querulous children, which is why I can never keep a blog going for more than six months. I insult everyone. These two voices share something very very terrible and they both feel compelled to tell their story together. I've never read that story written quite that way by anyone, ever. I know I'm the only one who can do it. But I don't know of I (we) are strong enough. And we have no role models whatsoever to "imitate."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Elliot quote- I dont' know if I can imitate it, but I'm going to steal it for my own blog :)

Anonymous said...

whoops- I meant Pound, not Elliot-