Sharon Pomerantz, the professor of my E325 course, once told me, “A writer reads. They read a lot. But they read differently than someone who does not write.” Well to be accurate, she told the class, but it felt like she was saying it directly to me. Those words seemed to release something within me and the act of reading became an invigorating exercise, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. While Sharon’s words broadened my approach to reading, they also exposed my negligence and made me realize that I was missing much of what literature had to offer. I took her course the first semester of my junior year and since then I have approached literature as unprocessed front. Old works have taken on new meanings when I reread them and new works become a thorough investigation of structure and intention. However with this resplendent discovery about other author’s writing, there came truths about my writing. I don’t have my own voice. I have only been using the most recent authors I read as a template for whatever essay I am writing. My writing is a result of whomever I am reading.
Before I jump into a comparison of my writing and other author’s, I feel that it is important to clarify that I’m not ashamed to admit that I take up my influences and project them into my essays, especially when I have been reading the author in class. My professors have meticulously selected works because they represent something significant and I have always been of the mindset that if I can achieve what is being shown to me, than I will be strengthening myself as a writer.
Later that semester in my E325 class, I was writing an essay about my friend group in high school and the effect it had on me. My writing was stale and I could feel it. I was having difficulties working out how to speak critically about people that I called friends. Sharon guided me through my initial struggles and the best thing she told me was to write my essay as if my friends would never read it. Her advice was so simple, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. I needed to be given that external permission. With that approach, I was able to enter a whole new level of writing; and the very act of writing became a cathartic release. In this unabashed approach, I spoke about my friends honestly and the amount of time I spent dwelling on them, their intentions and my reactions. Finally I had some clarity in my writing, unexpectedly though, I saw the relation between me and my friends took on a new level of clarity as well. Prior to that essay, I had never experienced that personal level of clarity through writing. I was amazed at how Sharon’s words transformed my mentality and my work.
I’ve had a hard time convincing myself that I am trying to write like other authors because that concept hasn’t made sense to me. I’ve been reading many different authors and writing many papers, but I’m not trying to copy the work of every author I read. As with many things in life, time and experienced has explained this mystery to me. I have been trying to replicate authors that write with active scenes and dialogue. In my essay for Sharon I was spending most the essay reflecting on my friends, but that is not my strong suit as a writer, I am much more capable of explaining characters through their actions and the way they interact with other characters. When I compiled my annotated bibliography I noticed that many of the creative pieces I had enjoyed the most were very dialogue and scene oriented.
In an essay written my freshman year for Paul Barron’s LHSP 130 class, I wrote my first piece of creative non-fiction. The prompt was simply to write about a person and I chose to write about my grandpa, Darwin Edens. At the time the essay was assigned, I was mid-way through the complete collection of Hemmingway short stories, which, retrospectively speaking is probably the reason I chose to write about my fishing trip with my grandpa. Hemmingway’s style undoubtedly manifested itself in my writing throughout the essay, but in particular during the final scene in the essay that I have presented here and in its original format:
Pulling me to my senses, my line gives a tug. I avoid the natural reflex to snap the rod back and reel furiously; instead, I calmly flick my line and wait. I am barely holding my rod, but this time I feel the fish land his bite. My fingers instantly tighten while I grip the rod and I watch the tip plunge towards the water. With one hand on the rod and the other toying the reel, I stand and take two tentative steps backwards while calling attention to my grandpa:
My grandpa turns, sees the action on my pole, and springs to life. “Whoa easy Sal, let the line out, let him run, we’ve got all day.”
I click the spool to release the lock and I let the line out slowly making sure to keep the pole high and the line taut. My grandpa has taught me everything I know about how to fish, but this feels as if it is the first time that I am on my own. I do my best to recall the lessons from my youth and visualize all that my grandpa has taught me. I reel from high to low keeping the line steady and I fight to keep the hook in the lip of the fish. My grandpa hurries to the back of the boat and grabs the metal rod with the blue net on the end.
“Keep it comin’. You’ve got him.”
Pulling ahead in the fight I follow the line into the water and try to catch a glimpse at the fish. I see it. The sun reflects off of the silver fins just as the dark water swallows the fish, but I saw him in that fleeting moment and my grandpa did too.
“Well I’ll be damned, a walleye,” he said, “That’s a real nice fish. Bring ’em home Sal you’ve got it.” The fight continues but I reel the walleye in close and my grandpa with precision and strength in one motion slides the net underneath the fish and swings him aboard.
This is my own work and my own words, but it’s Hemmingway’s voice that I am trying to emulate. The sentences are short and simple. The dialogue is sparse but significant. These themes were running throughout the essay because Hemingway’s style played to my strengths, very little reflection and quick paced scenes. Yet it still bothers me that this isn’t my best writing, it’s my best imitation of Hemmingway’s writing. The following is an excerpt from Hemingway’s short story Big Two-Hearted River. I had not read this when I wrote my first essay, but it really depicts how closely I was trying to emulate Hemingway.
Holding the rod in his right hand he let out line against the pull of the grasshopper in the current. He stripped off line from the reel with his left hand and let it run free. He could see the hopper in the little waves of the current. It went out of sight.
There was a tug on the line. Nick pulled against the taut line. It was his first strike. Holding the now living rod across the current, he hauled in the line with his left hand. The rod bent in jerks, the trout pulling against the current. Nick knew it was a small one. He lifted the rod straight up in the air. It bowed with the pull.
He saw the trout in the water jerking with his head and body against the shifting tangent of the line in the stream.
Nick took the line in his left hand and pulled the trout, thumping tiredly against the current, to the surface. His back was mottled the clear, water-over-gravel color, his side flashing in the sun. The rod under his right arm, Nick stooped, dipping his right hand into the current. He held the trout, never still, with his moist right hand, while he unhooked the barb from his mouth, then dropped him back into the stream.
I don’t know if my imitations were apparent to my professors, even if they did notice, they never said anything to me. In some respects though, my professors have had as large of an impact on my writing as the author’s I’ve read but their impacts are not nearly as tangible. I’ve touched upon how Sharon opened up my writing just by framing my mindset and never even looking at any grammar or structure. I say this because another trend began to emerge as I compiled my annotated bibliography and later reflected upon it in class. Some of my most influential documents contained a story or anecdote that the professor gave to me. Not only was I including other author’s styles but also I was writing in a voice that I believe would best suit the prompt and what I thought my professor’s would find interesting or compelling. Again I was manipulating my voice to achieve a desired effect, but I had no definitive voice.
Stepping aside from my writing, wherever the opportunity has presented itself, I have made a podcast for a course project. The audio medium is something that I have really come into over the past four years. My first podcast was the final project for Paul Barron’s course my freshman year where I interviewed my dorm mates. I have also made one for the Minor in Writing Gateway course and as one of the final pieces for my teaching portfolio with the Ann Arbor Languages Program. I enjoy listening to podcasts and I’ve also become fascinated by trying to produce them. I think that my love for podcasts comes out of the practicality that within the medium, direct scene and dialogue are necessary, which of course are my two best attributes in the written realm. Much like in my writing, I use other podcasts as my template namely, This American Life and Radiolab. However, I am much less secretive about my attempts to replicate their style because I have been trying to replicate their form in both the production end and the story content. I have had no formal training in creating podcasts and therefore I’ve set those podcasts as my standards. This is very similar to my philosophy about writing wherein, if I am able to achieve the sound that is produced I feel that I am succeeding in my work.
Whether it’s writing like Hemingway or providing an Ira Glass-esque voiceover, I find joy in producing the work. I feel like a little-leaguer trying to master their favorite baseball player’s batting stance and swing. It’s never going to be exact, but that’s not the point. The point is that I am trying. The opportunities and exploration I’ve been allowed throughout the minor in writing have contributed significantly to finding my voice because I have been able to try different things.
On the first draft of this essay, I used this phrase, “For the foreseeable future, my academic writing career is coming to a close. When I think of non-academic/artistic careers, I cannot think of an instance where creative writing is part of the daily task.” But once again, my professor’s insights have made me reevaluate this. The academic research oriented writing will end when I graduate, that part I am mostly certain of, however, the quest for my voice is going to be a life-long pursuit shaped by many individuals, only a few of whom may be authors. This has made me realize a lot about what voice is, and where it comes from. No factor of voice is as great as experience and I now believe that voice is just a matter of expressing those experiences through words. I’ve read hundreds of authors, but I do not and cannot replicate their voices. I’ve been able to replicate Hemmingway and Ira because I have those fishing experiences and I have an try to find the obscure and unexpected stories within a story.
My voice is not a static instrument, it’s constantly changing and that is something I have learned through the past four years, all the way up to and through this essay. I don’t have to find my voice; it’s already there.