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The Chameleon

There’s an aspect of writing that I often struggle with in which I find that my own style is reshaped by whatever or whomever I happen to be reading at the time. I’ll write a passage one day and when I peruse it the next I’ll discover that, like the skin of a chameleon, it’s taken on the rhythm, structure, or vocabulary of someone else.

For instance, I began writing The Fiddler’s Gun almost immediately after reading Frederick Buechner’s Godric and in the end I had to completely rewrite the first few chapters because they had the same archaic and often yoda-like sentence structure as Godric. It was fun to write but it certainly didn’t fit the tone of the book. It wasn’t really my writing–I was parroting, riffing off of a better author. I find that this sort of thing happens to me all the time and often wonder where the line is between influence and imitation.

Last week I started re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It’s a magnificent western with a very distinct style and voice that I suspect only McCarthy can rightly pull off. Yet in the last couple of days as I’m writing a section of Fiddler’s Green that takes Fin on horseback through a desert country, I find that it’s almost impossible not to fall back on inspiration from McCarthy. Here’s an example:

McCarthy (from Blood Meridian):

“In the evening they came out upon a mesa that overlooked all the country to the north. The sun to the west lay in a holocaust where there rose a steady column of small desert bats and to the north along the trembling perimeter of the world dust was blowing down the void like the smoke of distant armies. The crumpled butcherpaper mountains lay in sharp shadowfold under the long blue dusk and in the middle distance the glazed bed of a dry lake lay shimmering like the mare imbrium and herds of deer were moving north in the last of the twilight, harried over the plain by wolves who were themselves the color of the desert floor.”

The Chameleon (from Fiddler’s Green – first draft):

“Through the night they rode on. Fin nodded in and out of sleep. At times she awoke to the lunatic yap of jackals that moved like grey wraiths flitting between the rocks as the horse stepped sidewise and rolled its eye in fear. Once she started awake thinking she heard the low roll of drums and to the south she saw, lit by a sliver of moon, an endless congregation of antelope that moved across the nighted plain raising a cloud of dust behind them that swallowed the stars and turned the moon paler yet and rusty brown as a scrape of ruined iron. Near dawn, in that fabled darkest hour, she raised her head again and saw to the north the passage of sails. They hovered over the deep like a parade of phantom cavaliers tilted upon hellish steeds. Razor-tipped lances plowed the way before them. They passed in waves, ranks upon ranks of ghostly warlords bent toward the coming dawn as if to impale the sun itself and set it atop a spike in the blackened sky.”

See what I mean? I could do the same thing with passages from Tolkien, Milton(!), Buechner, Wangerin and half a dozen more. During the editing process I have to go back through passages like this and trim them, reshape them to make sure it’s A.S. Peterson who’s writing and not just some aspiring Cormac McCarthy imitator.

I tend to feel like an idiot when I see this happening but then I look around and realize that it occurs in other disciplines as well. Andrew has songs that clearly invoke other artists like Marc Cohn and Rich Mullins. Filmmakers like Tarantino have made stunning careers out of paying homage to those who have come before. I suppose it’s true that to varying extents we’re all “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

This illustrates plainly, I think, the great importance not only of reading but of reading well. What would my writing look like if I spent my downtime blowing through Twilight, or The Lost Symbol instead of Paradise Lost, The Book of the Dun Cow, the poetry of Wendell Berry, or the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. If the authors I read are going to have such a shaping effect on my own work, then by all means let it be the greats I’m reading rather than the penny dreadfuls.

So the key is in finding a balance between what you are creating and what inspires the creation. Rely too much on the latter and you are left with a hodge-podge of imitation rather than a work of your own. But hopefully, during the process one finds a synthesis that enables a new tapestry to emerge from old thread.

Does anyone else experience this sort of chameleonism? How do you combat or embrace it?


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