In Stephen King’s On Writing, Amy Tan mentions that when any of her fans ask her about writing, they never ask her about the language. They never want to know how she comes up with the wording, the syntax, the very essence of putting one letter in front of another. They always ask, where do you get your ideas?
What is story without words? A story is generally unoriginal one way or another. There’s nothing new, and there’s no master of the art who can deliver something that’s wholly unique. We can put spins on the work, perspectives, but nothing original. Not really. So, it remains that the wording, the voice, is often the only thing that separates one author’s work from another’s. I could write a novel detailing the last harried hours of an ill-fated passenger on the Titanic, perhaps throwing in a moving, poignant love story. It would echo the movie by James Cameron, of course, and the screenplay. Yet, what would be so very different is the voice, the unique stamp of my hand upon the creation; the same story, yes, but a new voice to show a universe unto itself. We could have a new, modern singer (such as Alicia Keyes) put her voice to an old song, something like “I Wished on the Moon” sung in the 1930s by Billie Holiday and we would think, oh, what a magnificent voice! without comparing the two singers.
My brand stamp of words, like a soul, came through emulating and learning from other powerful authors I’d admired. When I penned my first novel, Galleon, at the tender age of fifteen, my greatest writing idol at the time was Peter Benchley. His novel, The Deep, was my bible. I read the novel so many times, I could almost recite the narrative from paragraph to paragraph; I at least could tell you, if you were to read out loud any particular passage, what chapter it came from. My own freshman attempt mirrored Benchley’s style very well. Yet, after I grew and read other authors, the need to find other voices tempered my craft as a blacksmith tempers an alloy of many metals, bringing into existence a whole new material altogether. From Benchley I read JRR Tolkien; from Tolkien I read Stephen R Donaldson; from Donaldson I read Stephen King; from King I came to Peter Straub, and later, Anne Rice. Oh, but there were other authors, thrown into the mix, both old and new. Victorian age writers such as Henry James and Sheridan le Fanu rounded out my love for the eerie and the macabre, and my fantasy reading wasn’t merely defined by Tolkien or Donaldson. I discovered HP Lovecraft and Robert E Howard. Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jennie, a whimsical fantasy, helped usher in the nature of love and the often elusive pursuit of emotions a man might have for a woman.
Yet, when does the young writer find the words? Where are they birthed? As such as some Eastern philosophers would speculate like a soul, the words – the art – are found through the journey. The pain of our everyday living, perhaps, because no one can create without knowing suffering to some small degree. I have always surmised that one does not need to suffer so much as just find empathy. It is empathy, and the greatest ability to lie in front of the masses. Fib. Falsify. Artists are the greatest liars, but in their lies, they can smite you with the hidden truth.
That is why, as writers, adversity is our greatest ally. Well, besides alcohol.