Today I read a very curious statement. There is a billboard for the library that says “Every book is just a combination of 26 letters.”
26 letters. That’s it! Every great tome and every measly scrap of writing (at least in English) has been performed under those parameters. How incredibly simple! There is hope for one such as I! I have the same 26 as Shakespeare, the same as Hemingway (although he used his more sparingly, to be sure). All I need to do is employ those self-same letters of our shared alphabet. What could be easier?
26 letters. And there IS distinction between Shakespeare and Hemingway…and especially from them to me. If we do employ the same letters, what is the difference? Perhaps it is in their order. Surely Shakespeare was a master wordsmith. It is said he invented many of the words in his works, and many of those have made their way to regular usage. I must be a bolder, pioneering writer! But then, Hemingway certainly was no pioneer in diction. He used small words, in small ways, to tell (perhaps according to some) big things.
What are those letters in our alphabet? Surely they mean more and were more useful to the Great Writers than they are to me, for I have no such command of them. Were I able to command the soft vowels and hard consonants and bend them to my will, I would have done it all long since! Yet here I sit, scratching head and beard in search of the perfect word – yearning for a glance at a thesaurus, whose depths will perhaps reveal to me the truths I seek. The same letters, but not the same words.
It is true – we all use the letters our language has prescribed for our use. But it is no mere chance and blind rearranging that give us the marvelous stories from the Greats. Or you, or me. Indeed, such works of prose come from the ability to shape and craft those letters into meaning.
For what are words but symbols? And do we not use symbols to allude to our real Meaning frequently? The sun as a gold disk. The cross for our belief. (And in that vein) We put our trust not in the arrangements of letters on the page, but on the certainty that those letters make words that speak The Truth, and do it well and poignantly, to the reader’s soul.
I have recently been talking with other aspiring writers like myself, and a commonality among us is the need for originality. There are so many books out there, and everybody seems to be saying essentially the same stuff. A glance at the multitudinous racks of books at your local Barnes and Noble reveals a sight both engaging and intimidating. Somewhere, someone must have thought “This is is new, I’ll write about this!”
Or did they?
I have begun to agree with some philosophers (though only in the realm of literature and creativity) inasmuch as we, as people, are unique. Our stories, our characters, our plot lines may not be unique, but we the authors, are. The filter of the human being provides all the uniquery needed. Thus all our experience and imagination is necessarily different from everyone else, and as we ply our trade in a sure-handed manner, I believe we come to find very different books indeed. Or paintings, or music, but it is the writer to whom I speak.
Nevertheless it is overwhelmingly easy to become too preoccupied with originality in our work, and reasonably so: I have had many ideas that I start out to pen, only to find them already penned in the very next book I read. Were I to attempt to publish such a story (in my mind), the editors would merely laugh and send me away with warnings about plagiarism!
I find that I write very comfortably in 1st person and even in the present tense. Much of the work I did in college is testament to that. Does that make me a Suzanne Collins acolyte? It would be impossible, considering that I read The Hunger Games a day before the premiere of the movie. But this is not to say that someone may read my writings and declare that she is my writing model, and this is my concern.
And so it is important, I think, to read others’ works. As frequently as possible, as much as possible, and as widely as possible. There are two main benefits to this – firstly, that we should learn what ideas have already been employed in order to avoid potential catastrophe, and secondly to understand the vast myriad of ideas that the universe contains!
When one can comprehend the possibility of peril and suspense in Shakespeare, and see the same peril written out in Orwell, Le Carré, or Ludlum, one understands that it is the writing itself, the voice and perhaps soul of the author that carries the story, not the other way around. We see this especially in the realms of Science Fiction and Fantasy. How many authors have directly been influenced by the late great Tolkien in the way we understand story structure, world-building, creatures, language, and every other earmark of the genre? And yet somehow, despite glaring similarities, one is drawn into the book.
So there are by necessity commonalities between works. But to intentionally copy another is to betray our own voice.
While the title of this blog certainly is not all answered here, I believe there are some conclusions to be drawn to help our understanding of how to write.
1) Read widely in order to broaden your literary horizons for new ideas and caution on old ones
2) Understand that the story, while compelling, may not be what sets your tale apart.
3) Write the truth, in this case, what is truth to YOU, being unhindered by the precedents of your literary forebears.
4) Write the story you want to read. Don’t be so caught up in originality that you find your own story stale and uninteresting. Even if nobody else reads it, at least it will be good to YOU.