On June 22, 2020, Katie W. wrote: How do you combine your writing voice with someone else’s? My grandmother left around fifteen notebooks of information for a novel, and I really want to finish it, but I’m worried about keeping it true to her while, at the same time, keeping it true to my own writing. Essentially, what I’m wondering is how do you finish something someone else started?
I love this question!
Since it came in more than a year ago–Katie W., where are you in the project?
And I’m so sorry you lost your grandmother!
In one of my favorite classes in poetry school, we had to read a poetry collection every week and write an analysis and an imitation poem. One of the poets we read was Matthea Harvey, whose work is only for adults. The collection I read is ironic and tragic.
When I wrote my imitation poem, I felt like she took up residence in my brain and I was just taking dictation. But that mind meld I felt didn’t happen automatically (and Harvey herself might not think I had imitated her at all). I read her poems exceedingly closely. Her lines are long. She uses punctuation rarely, and the reader has to figure out what’s going on when the end of one unpunctuated sentence becomes the beginning of the next. She loves alliteration and detail and images. There are surreal surprises.
I did the same analysis of the work of the other assigned poets and felt that I always caught something of their work, but never as close as I thought I came with Harvey.
Katie W. Says she has “information” rather than manuscript pages. When I write notes, I don’t craft my sentences. I leave them as they come out, plop! Anyone hoping to imitate my fiction voice wouldn’t find my notes useful. So, to study notebooks of information for writing voice may not work. But maybe Katie W. has some fiction-writing of her grandmother’s or even letters or emails that she spent time drafting. The point is to concentrate on whatever reflects the voice of the writer we want to merge with.
We look at sentence length. Are the sentences short, long, or varied? Same for paragraphs. Word choice: many syllables or one-to-two? Is her writing direct, or does she circle around? Serious or funny? Easy to understand, or does she make the reader work? If we’re looking at fiction, is there much dialogue? Description? Detail? Images? Sounds? Smells? What’s the ratio between showing and telling?
Then we can try a paragraph, assess, revise. We can take something that is to happen in the novel and write a little bit of it as a scene, consider it, revise. Once we’ve analyzed our model’s writing, we know how to approach the revision.
Obviously, I don’t know Katie W.’s grandmother, and you probably know I have no children. But I’m old enough to be a grandmother, or even a great-grandmother. I like the idea of a grandchild picking up a beginning of mine or an idea and running with it. This is all speculative of course, but I’d want the grandchild, grown up or not, to enjoy themself and not be worried about whether or not I would approve. This is how I feel about my prompts on the blog–have fun, and save what you write. I also am perfectly happy if people change the prompts to suit what they want to write.
On the other hand, wanting to honor a memory is worthy. If we want to, we can do that.
When the Disney Press asked me to write a book (which became three books) in the world of the fairies of Peter Pan by James M. Barrie, I wanted to respect the original, which was one of my favorite books when I was little.
I found the imitation astonishingly hard, really impossible. Barrie is a such a supple writer! He can start a sentence heading west, twist it a quarter turn, twist again, until it’s facing northeast. I couldn’t figure out how he did it! Take a look for yourself, now that the book has entered the public domain: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16/16-h/16-h.htm. If you’ve never read the novel, you’re in for a treat–except for the dated parts, some of which are cringe-worthy, like his treatment of native Americans.
I noticed that he uses of course often, so I tossed in the phrase with abandon, the least I could do, and it seems to have become habit now. I kept features of Neverland as much as I could, and preserved the personalities of Peter himself and Captain Hook whenever they appeared.
But I also made artistic choices. Barrie uses direct address, meaning he speaks to the reader, and I didn’t want that, so I didn’t–or I don’t remember doing it.
We can decide what our priority is too, which may be honoring a beloved grandmother even if the best story isn’t the result. We can write more than one story, too, one true to the original and one striking out on our own. If family members are interested in the project, one version can be for them and another for a wider readership.
One more thing, which I think I’ve said here before: Imitation is an exceedingly valuable skill for a writer. To do it well, we have to take apart someone else’s work, put it back together, examine it under high magnification, turn it this way and that in the light, back away, come in close again. We’ll wind up with more tools and a bigger range. We are much richer writers in the end.
Here are three prompts. If you’re so disposed, post what you come up with:
• Here’s a little bit of prose from Shakespeare, Hamlet speaking. Imitate Shakespeare! Write about something that depressed you or about a stomachache. See if you can catch his style:
I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
• Here’s a little bit from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which her dry humor is on display. See if you can do something like it, either based on people you know or a few of your characters:
Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady, either on his handwriting, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in union with her opinion of each.
“How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!”
He made no answer.
“You write uncommonly fast.”
“You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.”
“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!”
“It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of yours.”
• Write an imitation paragraph of advice on some aspect of writing, say, setting, or anything else–in my voice!
Have fun, and save what you write!