On Writing the Same, Only Different

December 7, 2018 § 12 Comments

zz_kathyby Kathy Stevenson

Every time I read a book I really like, whether fiction or nonfiction, I close the book with a deep satisfaction, and immediately think to myself, “I wonder if I could try doing it that way.”

That way, of course, encompasses that particular author’s own unique vision, talent for storytelling, character development, and even syntax. Somehow the writer made all those singular elements come together to form a coherent whole – and not just coherent, but artful. Effortlessly artful.

Of course, deep down, I know that very few authors would describe their process of writing as “effortlessly artful.” That might be the way a finished work looks to others, but in reality most published authors have put in the hard work. (Though, sometimes hard work isn’t enough – raw talent and luck and other mysterious forces also can come into play.)

It’s not that I actually want to copy another writer’s style or organizing principles or, God forbid, themes. It’s more of a raw admiration for how they did it, and then me looking back through a work to see if I can discover how they made all the disparate parts a lovely and gratifying whole.

For example, I would kill any number of my darlings to write a book like Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Deceptively simple in its narrative structure, and even its “plot” and characters, Mrs. Bridge dumbfounds me every time I go back to it. I will start reading it, and think to myself, “Okay, this time I am going to figure out why this book sucks me in and keeps me reading even as nothing is really happening.” And by nothing, I mean life. Nothing blows up, there are no spies or aliens or fantasy worlds. Even sex is a vague undercurrent in Mrs. Bridge, although you sense simmering sexual tension throughout the book.

Nonfiction presents equal challenges. As someone who devours memoirs, and often writes memoir, I look at each one I read (after I have devoured it) with an eye to figuring out what magic tricks the author employed to suck me in. After reading my fiftieth or hundredth memoir, throughout a lifetime of reading, I still come to the end and think, “How did they do that?” And then, “I want to do it like that.”

Probably the memoir I have re-read most often is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Each time I read it, I discover it anew. Much of this has to do with the language Wolff uses. “When we are green, still half-created, we believe our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters.” With each reading I remind myself to pay attention to the fine balancing act of Wolff’s storytelling and insight into his indelible (and very real) characters.

After reading Wolff, I want to do the same thing he did. To not clobber my reader over the head with profound insights, to let the narrative provide those leaps in the reader’s mind. And even though I can use the same tools as Wolff, my own stories – my way of narrating them – and my insights are going to be organically different.

Abigail Thomas is another memoir writer I greatly admire. When I read her work, again I think to myself, maybe I should try and write more like her. Ha!

Just because you admire the way someone puts words and narratives together doesn’t mean that’s the way you can or should do it. But I am still sorely tempted to try when I read Thomas’s words, “Maybe there are dozens of souls born again, and again into the same repertory company, and with each new birth they play different parts in a different play.”

For a long period of time, May Sarton’s Journal of A Solitude was a guidepost of sorts in my writing. Here, then, was the way to do it… Just write down your thoughts each day, and let those daily musings on life weave themselves into a whole cloth. A technicolor dream-coat of days that adds up to something more. The whole time I tried that little experiment, tried writing my own Journal of Whatever, I could sense some kind of writing fairy godmother floating nearby, calling my bluff. Clearly I was no May Sarton.

And yet, I find myself returning to these authors and their books and wondering what alchemy of words they were able to conjure forth. And, then I think, they did it – so why can’t I?

It’s not that I want to write the same book in the exact same way as my most admired memoirists (and I could easily name dozens). I know I have to find my own way. A different way. But just knowing that they have come before helps me gain the confidence that I can do the same. Only different.

Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Red Rock Review, Clapboard House, Tishman Review, The Same, South Boston Literary Gazette, and the Brevity blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College and is living for the winter near San Diego.

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§ 12 Responses to On Writing the Same, Only Different

  • ccbarr says:

    Maybe each book you liked satisfyed something in yourself.

  • heatherdyer says:

    What a great piece Kathy, I’m experiencing the same sort of quandry myself at the moment. I also suspect that each project has its own way of best being told, and that this only emerges once we start trying.

  • bethfinke says:

    Thanks for the reminder to read Mrs. Bridge. I’ve never gotten around to doing so before, and will read it now. ! Also, thanks to Brevity Non-Fiction blog for turning me on to the IOTA Writing Conference in Maine, where I had the privilege of taking a couple workshops with Abigail Thomas in 2016. Write on!


  • Lindi Roze says:

    Great post! Mirrors my thoughts and feelings – just like when I’m reading a favorite book. Thanks for sharing.

  • Gayann Thomas says:

    Kathy, Loved the article. Lots to ponder. Miss you and wish you would visit.

  • You put it very well…I mean to say I also feel that way only mine bleeds into artists as well. Thank you for putting it so succinctly.

  • Leslie Knowlton says:

    Loved this. I too am huge fan of Mrs. Bridge and May Sarton (have all her books), and don’t know how they do it! Wish I could figure it out. Also like Doris Grumbach. She was a contemporary of Sarton and talks about her in her books.

  • Kathy R. says:

    This happens to me, it feels like, every day. I feel so inspired and frustrated and encouraged by those whom I admired all at the same time. It’s like they, by having brought themselves to light, allow me to catch a glimpse of myself and what I could be – writing wise at least. You’ve put it so clearly this is a piece I’ll keep recommending to writer friends of mine for a long while.

  • colbyjack5000 says:

    As a graduate student myself, I am reading a long list of “classics” I had never read before, and falling in love with authors I have heard of, like Steinbeck – but not for the famous works – their other ones. I have always been intimidated away from reading the “greats” because if I don’t enjoy them, there is something wrong with me. I also loved “This Boy’s Life”, but “Travels With Charlie” was my favorite Steinbeck. But have come to the conclusion that I have been given this long reading list for two reasons. First, I wasted the first 50 years of my life reading too little, and when I read, it was one Danielle Steele after another, until I realized they were all the same book.
    Now, with this list, my brain is becoming a bowl of Stone Soup. Each author comes to my bowl and adds something; a carrot, a potato, or a small piece of meat to make my soup more nutritious, more tasty, or more complex. They don’t give me their bowl, just add a bit to mine. Because I am me, my soup is not like anyone else’s, but instead adds to who I am. This is true for all of us, I think. I discovered through reading these established authors that they all have something to teach me; and in the learning, I become more like ME. I bet you do too.

  • Claire says:

    I’d like to think that when I read something and wish I could do it “like that” at least it helps inspire and maybe clarify a few things in my writing style for the next piece. 🙂

  • amanda says:

    You might like to know that this piece pulled me in, same as the writings that you admire do to you! So you nailed it by just writing as you speak (that’s how your writing comes across), very natural and fun to read. I enjoyed this piece, and could relate! Thank you

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