I Won't Lie. I Still Want to be Tom Waits.

I was thinking about a writer's voice recently and how it gets formed. 

I think it all comes down to copying. I know, I know, copying other writers is the biggest of big no-nos but bear with me here.

For me, it all started with Tom Waits.

I was introduced to him one summer at UVA's Writers Camp (Yes, I went to writers camp as a kid. It was awesome.) and became immediately obsessed with his romanticism, the richness of his language and his be-bop rhythms. I spent a lot of time listening to his albums--especially Big Time, Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones--and then writing surreal poems about woeful ex-cons, bowery bums and midgets (all of which, as a suburban kid from Virginia, I knew oh so much about) and paying lots of attention to the rhythm of each line, trying to make my sentences sound somewhere near as cool in my head as his did.

Eventually I realized I was not and never would be Tom Waits (even now this realization stings a bit)  but eventually others came along. I spent years trying to write just like Stephen King and Tennessee Williams. Later it was Federico Lorca and Jose Rivera and Erik Ehn.

Sometimes we think that a writer's voice is this singular thing that springs fully formed from their pen when in reality that idea is probably bunk. Instead, I think that we all move from influence to influence and as we do some aspects of each stick--A focus on rhythm and meter. Types of characters or situations--and some don't. At the same time we're also developing our own little ticks and tendencies and these mix with the traces of our influences, now so slight and mixed up that they're barely noticeable, and form the sound and patterns in our writing. At least I know that's the case with me.

So what I'm saying, especially to younger writers is, yes, copy away. Read voraciously and let it effect you. Dive into your influences, experiment with them, try them on like new suits of clothes until you tire of them and go elsewhere. Eventually I think you make a soup of your tendencies and your influences.  Little bit of this. Little bit of that. It all mixes together until, over time, it becomes something completely new.

What about you? Who were your influences? Can you still see their influence on what you write about or how your writing sounds?

(Oh and if you're not  familiar with Tom Waits. This is a good look at what it was I was so obsessed with.)

Jeff Hirsch
The Eleventh Plague
Coming from Scholastic, September 1, 2011

Find me at jeff-hirsch.com and @jeff_hirsch


Rhonda Helms said...

Tom Waits is awesome. Great post!!

Laura Pauling said...

I think we all learn from and start by being influenced by writing we love, even if it's not on purpose.

Point in case: my daughter was reading Sherlock Holmes for like 2 weeks - the same time she had an essay due at school. I noticed quite a few of 'thences' and 'partooks' in her writing. She didn't even realize it!

Mandy P.S. said...

When I was younger, everything I read affected my writing voice. One really funny incident involved writing a SF novel and reading Shakespeare. Suddenly my futuristic characters were speaking in thee's and thou's and a few of those lines might even have been in iambic pentameter.

Jacqueline Howett said...

Enjoyed the read. Some nice nuggets of wisdom here!

Matthew MacNish said...

We're influenced by all our experiences, we can't not be. To me the two biggest parts of voice are diction (what word you choose to say what you mean) and rhythm (how many words you choose to say it, and in what order). I think diction is heavily influenced by what we read, because what we read makes up our vocabulary much more than what we hear. I think rhythm though, is a bit more nebulous. I'm a writer who thinks about rhythm a lot. I hope that each sentence I write has a pleasing rhythm, or, if it doesn't, that I wrote it that way on purpose.

I'm not sure where that comes from.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

"meet me by the knuckles of the skinny-bone tree." Oh. Yeah. Love me some Tom Waits. I'd love just a smidge of his style.

Alex said...

Anything I read or watch affects how I think and write. If I watch a Cowboy Film, I talk like a stereotypical American Cowboy. If I watch Shakespeare (or read/hear it) then I will at least think like Shakespeare and Ye Olde English. Anything I I watch will, in the short term, affect how I might word my thoughts, and the strictness (and age) of the grammar implemented.