My worst fear is not rejection slips. My worst fear is that I will be published in a book that will turn out to be redundant and unnecessary and end its life in the 50 cent bin at an Esso on the #1 Hy-way in Saskatchewan (shudder). With the volume of books already published, how does an inexperienced writer hope to add anything new?
On her blog Borrowing Bones (doradueck.wordpress.com), Dora Dueck recently explored the relationship between reading great writers and writing. In response to my questions about how to remain generative rather than reactionary, Dueck interviewed Shirley Hershey Showalter, who is reading 100 memoirs before writing her own, on the topic of finding one’s own voice while listening to the chorus of writers who’ve gone before us.
As I read their conversation, I recalled two diverse quotes on originality. One is Janet Fitch’s wisdom to “avoid clichés.” And she doesn’t just mean the threadbare ones: “When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever heard or read before is a cliché.” Whatever happened to imitation being the sincerest form of flattery? Oh, sorry. You’ve probably heard that before. While I agree that sometimes the “tried and true” is more “tired and thirty,” aiming for originality seems like a ticket to madness. (A naked man juggling dead squirrels on the roof is unique, but without fitting any of our cultural categories, he says nothing.)
And then you have C.S. Lewis’ wisdom: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
If I had to choose one, I’d say Lewis is the more necessary. But as an editor, I’d have to say he takes it too far in the other direction. Many people tell the truth. Badly. I suspect part of the problem is that they were unwilling to tell the whole truth. But the fact is, there are myriad ways to share facts, and many are not worth reading. Or at the least, not worth reading twice.
Returning to Dora Dueck’s blog, I was intrigued (as were others) by her image of the stream (borrowed from Willa Cather): “A woman writer stands in the stream of literary history, but lets it fall away to reveal the purer self that sings naturally in her own body, in her own voice.” At first this analogy left me with only cold, wet feet and more questions. How does one control what will wash away and what will not? If I do not yet recognize my own poetic voice, how do I know it will not erode or dissolve as soon as my toes hit the water? Then I found this:
In an essay on (about/of/for/with) his influences in Rhubarb, Rudy Wiebe”> begins with an etymology lesson. Influence is the preposition “in” plus the Latin “fluence” – to flow.
“Is Rhubarb asking: what, in a lifetime, has flowed in you,
Rudy Wiebe? Or is it “flowed into,” or “flowed through/
within/past/under/over/beside/ out of/against,” all those
powerful, essential prepositions which in English shapeshift
and control our meanings? Or is the question really:
what, with all this flowing somewhere in you, has remained behind to make
you the writer you continue trying to become? Tell us, make it up (down/out?)
When I think of the literary stream flowing through me, not under or around me, rather than imagining it washing me from the outside, I imagine the stream becoming part of me, like the water I drink; what I love, remember, and cling to from other writers (like Wiebe and Dueck) – those “flowings in” will irrigate me, silt up my banks, colour my own flow with its algae and grasses. Because the stream flows in me, rather than me standing in it, my literary traditions and mentors cannot wash away my experiences and beliefs (trapped inside me) – these will make my voice my own.