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Friday, 14 May 2010

Imitating Greats

Today I stumbled across this quote, attributed to Mae West: "Let Shakespeare do it his way, I'll do it mine. We'll see who comes out better."

It struck a chord. What writer hasn't looked at the work of their literary idol (be it Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Graham Greene or Dan Brown) and wanted suddenly to be that writer? It's not just about the prestige and the recognition those writers have received either. As a novice it's so much easier to have an answer to those questions from people trying to appear interested in your work: "what kind of stuff do you write" and "who are you like then". Is it just me who gets those questions from well-meaning friends?

I have my literary idols, of course. Katherine Mansfield, Edith Wharton, Sarah Waters - too many to mention here. One activity I did for my MA Creative Writing was to write something in the style of a famous writer, a pastiche. We were given extracts of pieces by Raymond Chandler, Henry Fielding, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. I immediately grabbed Henry Fielding, Tom Jones being a favourite book of mine, and set to work. Here's a few lines of what I came up with that session:

Petula McBride, our disillusioned heroine, was the only bearded girl of Patty and Mickey McBride, and sister to the smooth-skinned Ramona, whose reputation at present is quite illuminating. For the family we have looked with mass trepidation and little success: we faltered in tracing them farther than the great-grandmother who masqueraded as Margaret the Moose and was sister to that famed contortionist, Millie. Was there family before this it's impossible to say. It is left to the dear reader to deduce the origin of her bald patch.

Be gentle - it was written in twenty minutes and had to be read out aloud to the group!

I really enjoyed writing this. It was easy to get caught up in Fielding's mannerisms and, despite the fact he was centuries out of date, my tutor commented that a pastiche like that could be popular with modern readers. The trouble is, if you focus too much on being Henry Fielding then you forget who you are yourself.

I love nestling into a bit of pastiche writing, or even fan fiction, when I'm in the mood. If I'm having trouble with my work in progress or just having one of those droughts where every word feels out of place and extraneous then it offers an outlet where I can carry on writing but with something of a blueprint to follow.

Inevitably, though, I yearn to go back to my own voice. If imitation does anything it reminds me that trapped inside of me is a unique voice struggling to get out.

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