Several years ago a talented and passionate writer friend said to me, when I complimented her work, “Yes, but I want to be Virginia Woolf.”
I said that if she wanted to be Virginia Woolf, then she should do like Virginia Woolf did. Look at the world, know your language, and use language to reflect the world of your consciousness, reflect the experience of life in your time.
From our conversation, what I learned was that my friend didn’t want to do as Virginia Woolf did, but wanted to write what Virginia Woolf had already written.
This was unfortunate.
I’m no expert on Virginia Woolf, but there is a well-known anecdote of how Woolf, herself enamoured of Jane Austen (whose works at the time were already one hundred years old) realized that these fictions she loved could no longer reflect the world she lived in. Seeing this, Virginia Woolf set out to find a new way to use language on the page.
Admiration for other writers is essential. It is the work of other writers that makes us want to write. It is the work of other writers that teaches us how to write. It is the work of other writers that expands the universe we know, in all its dimensions. When I find myself swept away by a piece of writing, no sooner have I finished it than I want to go back to the beginning and read again, to try to find out how the writer did this to me. At times like this I am a harvester: I want to acquire skills and technique from seeing what other writers do. Time doesn’t always allow me to go back and re-read, so my reading pile inevitably grows: Books to Read, and Books To Read Again.
But I don’t want to be any other writer than myself. I know there was a time when I looked at other writers and envied them, but this stopped. I don’t know when it happened, but it happened. And I like to think my writing is well served by this.
Writing is hard enough as it is, even when it’s going well, to have added to it the needless measure of “Will this piece of writing make me more like ______________________?”
How many additional limits and constraints does an artist need? When students ask me how to learn from other writers, I suggest they do what I refer to above: Look at the writing that moves you, and try to see how it works.
But there is another way to learn from other writers: Learn about the lives of the writers you admire. Learn what motivated them, influenced them, formed them. Learn how they related to the world in which they lived, and try to learn how the writer used the skills at their disposal to render their relationship with the world, their perceptions of the world, onto the page.
And, as for Virginia Woolf, her advice to the women of her time in A Room of One’s Own applies equally to all writers, across all of time, “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters...”
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Ken Murray lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario. He teaches creative writing at Haliburton School of the Arts and at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. He is a volunteer broadcaster in community radio and dabbles in several sports. Eulogy is his first novel. For more information visit http://www.kenmurray.ca.