I haven’t heard it said in so many words, or at least not recently, but I get the impression that one way to become an artist is to work through your influences – to aspire to what your idols do, to find parallel ways to approach your process, and even your life, in search of some reflected light from their suns, until you become a luminary yourself. I feel like this is especially true for an “outsider” “aspiring” “artist” like myself. Having been too busy in the past conforming, following the path of least resistance, and eventually suffering for years in the art-allergic, expression-averse world of engineering, it’s safe to say that I haven’t quite found my own voice yet.
But I have certainly found my influences. Like those characters in Cormac McCarthy novels (more on him later!) I kept the light alive. This meant relentlessly chasing culture, pursuing it into the deepest, most esoteric rabbit-holes (this mostly applies to my taste in music – it’s much easier to find great, boundary-pushing literature) to find the artifacts that resonated with my soul. It was only through this activity that my essence was kept intact.
But now the time for consumption is fading away. I must produce if I am to keep any portion of my freedom. What’s difficult is the vast gulf between the culture I so admire, even worship, and what I am able to produce myself. It’s no secret that I want to ditch the doughy masculine yawn-fest that is engineering and become a dashing, mysterious writer, so let’s take a look at that.
I have read or audiobooked a number of great books lately, and each one has left me pointing at something and yelling “I want to be able to do THAT!” I’ll list a few examples.
Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison) – To frame race in such human terms, that is, to illuminate both the large and small violences, injustices and misunderstandings that still create a gulf between black and white. To play with identity in such subtle ways. To create such a strong narrative voice with such an uncertain and unassuming narrator. To create such an avant-garde work in such a politically charged era.
Freedom (Jonathan Franzen) – To become one with the zeitgeist. To speak from a modern sensibility in a way that is natural and relatable.
Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe) – I didn’t actually like Things Fall Apart. I thought it was little more than a glorified children’s book. For at least five years I’ve been mildly curious about Achebe’s masterpiece and it was a simplistic, bland disappointment. I suppose part of my dissatisfaction was due to listening to it after Gravity’s Rainbow, nonetheless, I have no idea why this is such an acclaimed book. I just had to get that off my chest.
Gravity’s Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon) – God, where to start. To be able to use language to create such baroque masterpieces of description. To create such an immersive world of shifting absurdity and truth, history and confabulation. To represent characters, their actions and motivations fully without giving up the privilege of writing in the most ornate and ambitious way possible. To use one’s imagination and prose fully, to indulge in writing about everything all the time and somehow still accomplish excitement and drama (unlike Infinite Jest!). To write something this wild and get away with it.
Blood Meridian, The Road (Cormac McCarthy) – To write such grim, spare stories and use lots of fancy vocabulary, simile and metaphor without ruining the overarching mood of the work. To eschew dialogue most of the time, and eschew quotation marks always. To write uncompromisingly, seeing the vision through to its organic, stark conclusions. To write novels that somehow get better after you read them.
White Noise (Don Delillo) – To use one’s skill with prose and meaning to achieve great humor. To dissect hallmarks of American life without the usual agendas. To approach a vague but universal subject through the interactions of endearingly oddball characters. To make a reasonable main character do unreasonable things and have the reader still understand him.
A Scanner Darkly, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (Philip K. Dick) – To be a clumsy writer with a knack for awkward sentences who can still make a story compelling. To be able to use grand visions, everyday experience and above all, sheer force of imagination to create works that will not be denied, no matter how poorly the prose reads out of context.
I also went through a Hunter Thompson Gonzo phase, a Joseph Conrad phase etc. I used to read Mark Prindle’s music reviews and I wanted to be zany and hilarious like him (this mostly came out in emails to friends). Unfortunately the only writings I pushed out during any of these infatuations were private emails, dumb facebook statuses and decent-enough facebook notes (music essays and such). Now I have a blog so yeah, I’m taking it to the next level.
I think you get the idea. Ideally I would be able to do all of the above things – to take the best parts from each style and become a sort of dynamo. Sadly I don’t think it’s going to work out that way. I have a feeling any work I can get finished – and, lord willing, published – will probably be slavishly and obviously indebted to this that or the other author.
I imagine finding your voice is saying “I don’t really care what those other guys are doing, I’m just going to do me”. I’m definitely not there yet. So for now I’ll just have to want it all, to imitate the masters in ways that I think I can get away with. When I can cobble together enough experience and finished work to see what is working and what isn’t, what feels challenging and fresh and what feels trad and banal, then I can start speaking in my own voice. I hope I find it sooner than later.