The Chameleon

By

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?

Profile photo of Pete Peterson

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


23 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Brave of you to share this and be so transparent, thank you.

    I often experience this, mostly in my prose. After reading Buechner, I can spot his influence in my own writing all the time. To be honest, I wish I experienced it more in my songwriting! I listen to a lot of great artists: Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Bono… I wish their brilliance were a little more apparent in my own work!

    Speaking of Bono, I’ve often thought of this line of his regarding this very thing:
    “Every artist is a cannibal
    Every poet is a thief
    All kill their inspiration
    And sing about their grief…”

    Good stuff… And probably an okay formula, too. I remember sitting in a retreat session with Reed Arvin and him talking about learning the hard and demanding piano pieces by the greats, how the greats became his teachers in that way and he their student.

    There are worse things to do with our grief than sing about it…

  2. Leanore

    I don’t know, Pete, I didn’t care for that passage from McCarthy. Good writing has a simplicity to it, and you recognize the truth of it even though the words and metaphors might be in a different setting than you’ve seen before. With that passage I had to keep going back to get the sense of each phrase and symbol, and not in a good way. Not to appreciate and enjoy them, just to try to figure out what he was saying. Lack of punctuation added to that. It took me four tries to get it. I think the metaphors are really stretched. There are too many metaphors, each one painting its own tiny picture, but they don’t hang together. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy reading it.

    Paul Simon? Simple, and brilliant. One of my college-age friends doesn’t care for the music — too simple compared to current sounds – but the lyrics tell a profound story in ordinary language, and they strike a deep chord. Same thing with Bono.

    So, to your point, yes we are all imitators. With music I pack a bunch of styles and time periods into a short time frame, and then my brain scrambles it all up and it comes out in a blend that’s not strictly one thing or another, but it’s me.

    Maybe you need to read five books at a time.

  3. Bruce Hennigan

    Two of my favorite authors are James Lee Burke and Ray Bradbury. I have to avoid reading their works during the time of revision for the reason I tend to adapt to the style of the author I am currently reading. Having said that, there are times my prose may be to spare and cold. I often return to one of my favorite passages by either of these authors and it inspires me to flesh out the exposition of my novels. It is comforting to know that other authors have this problem. I find the editing process the most painful and yet, the most rewarding. Free writing allows me to create moving and sensual passages like those above. But, in the end, the publisher’s word count limit and the need to fine tune your writing prevails. I recently signed a contract with Strang Communications to produce five books. I have had to take my first two books and shorten them. I find myself caught between the love of the prose and the need to focus. It is an uncomfortable position to be in. It is like pruning the tips of my fingers sometimes it is so painful. But, hopefully, the end result in its delicate balance of dialogue and character and exposition is worth it. We, the authors, know the price of editing while our readers never know the wonderful puddles of sound and sensation we leave behind on the “cutting room” floor.

  4. Pete Peterson

    Leanore,

    Agreed, as a rule writing is best kept simple.

    If that snippet of McCarthy isn’t to your liking you should probably steer clear of Blood Meridian. That excerpt is one of the most clear and simple in the book. His writing style, in that book at least, is very complex. He creates a mythic tone by using sprawling page-long metaphors and similes and that are often mind-bending and visionary, almost biblical…and sans punctuation as you point out. I can’t get enough of it. I love Milton and Tolkien for the same reasons, of course.

  5. Chad Ethridge

    I can go back and read old journal entries that invoke the musicians that I was listening to at the time. Back in the college I spent a lot of time listening to Bruce Cockburn and I have found much of his travel-log popping up in my own entries. I’ve also written some things with a trace of the DNA from Pierce Pettis, Billy Crockett and other singer/songwriter types – not that anything I have written deserves to be on an equal playing field with these guys, but the influence is there like you have experienced.

  6. Jen

    Most definitely. Sometimes, when I go back through my old journals, I can pick out things I wrote while reading Anne Lamott. Sometimes it’s not so much imitating her style… it’s just the books trigger thoughts that lead to ideas that feel like something she’d write about. A touch of her rhythm and style ends up as part of the territory, I guess.

    In that sense, I’m definitely learning to embrace it. I love how art is born from other art: a song, a story, a poem… even an evening breeze or a funny conversation between family or co-workers counts. Like Loren said, revision helps. But it’s sort of fun to see those chameleon influences show up in the raw material and mold them into something that’s completely you.

    Jason: Well… I wrote a blog post about the coming of spring that was totally influenced by what you posted here a few months ago. (The Promise of Spring, The Fruits of Winter). I’ll just admit to it now. 😉

  7. Chris Slaten

    Pete,

    I think you are in a good spot if you can identify your influences even in retrospect.

    After reading that McCarthy excerpt all I could think of was how it oozed Faulkner. After reading yours, since you pointed it out, I can see McCarthy and Tolkien but not Faulkner. The fact that your writing, to me, sounds like McCarthy without Faulkner means that even though the style of Blood Meridian may bear a heavy resemblance to one of its fathers, it is still its own and is richer for the influence.

    The times that I think of influence as a problem I have to remind myself that I do not write in a vacuum, but in a community. In general, often I will catch myself having mimicked the mannerisms of one of my close friends, colleagues and other people I look up to. Maybe it is a certain laugh, a saying, a tone of voice, or maybe the way I reflexively roll my eyes after a sarcastic joke while I’m teaching. My life is saturated with influences and if I were to watch myself on camera I could probably point out handfuls of them dating back to my seventh grade math teacher. Trying to scrub the evidence of these out of my pores would be narcissistic and self-congratulating. In the same way, the students in our middle school who try the hardest to be uninfluenced all end up creating their own little isolated subculture of kids who dress, talk and act the same way.

    So why do we, as artists, often try so hard to struggle against this?
    In one of his sermons Tim Keller quoted a Vogue interview with Madonna. She said, “Every time I accomplish something I feel like a special human being, but after a little while I feel mediocre and uninteresting again. I find I have to get myself past this again and again. My drive in life is from the horrible fear of being mediocre. I have to prove I am somebody.”

    I think Loren gave the best practical advice: Revision. Though I would add that I don’t think it is always a problem. Rather than scrubbing out with revision I think it may be better to blend, be aware and use our influences in a way that best serves the story. If you’re not comfortable with the heavy resemblance the excerpt that you posted bears to your influence, then change it. Though I would be extremely surprised if you included that in the finished product and someone cried out, “Rip off!”

    ***I’m going to post this now, though looking at the comments I think that Jen just said the same thing more poetically and succinctly.

  8. Jesse D

    McCarthy’s writing style is far more like poetry than prose, in my opinion. If you keep that in mind, I think it makes him far more enjoyable for those who like more straightforward prose. The Road is the only book of his I’ve read so far, and I was struck by the lyrical quality to his writing, and felt like I was reading an epic poem rather than a novel.

  9. Pete Peterson

    Agreed, Jesse.

    Just came across this passage from Blood Meridian. The entire book is written this way. It’s pretty amazing:

    “They wandered the borderland for weeks seeking some sign of the Apache. Deployed upon that plain they moved in a constant elision, ordained agents of the actual dividing out of the world which they encountered and leaving what had been and what would never be alike extinguished on the ground behind them. Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenellated heat. Above all else they appeared wholly at venture, primal, provisional, devoid of order. Like beings provoked out of the absolute rock and set nameless and at no remove from their own loomings to wander ravenous and doomed and mute as gorgons shambling the brutal wastes of Gondwanaland in a time before nomenclature was and each was all.”

  10. Leanore

    Pete, Thanks for the reply, and the comment on Blood Meridian. I may have given the wrong impression – it’s not that I don’t like epic complexity, or having to read or listen to a passage several times to get it. When I’ve done that, I want it to settle in deep, even if I don’t get ALL of it. I love biblical description for that reason, and of course Tolkien.

    I think I must be a born editor…but I do like your excerpt, better than McCarthy. Thanks for sharing that!

  11. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Pete,

    Imitation is incredibly important in all art. But it can become a bad and unconscious habit if we stop there and don’t grow beyond it. The real problem comes when we favor one icon; in bluegrass guitar this is usually Tony Rice. Tony Rice clones sound “almost just like Tony Rice.” They’re never quite up to Tony’s high standard. The real problem comes mostly from imitating one or two people.

    Imitation is crucial, especially in the early years of playing music. It’s how we learn the musical vocabulary, how to put phrases together, how to improvise on the spot. But there does come a time to step out and fly on our own.

    I have done the same thing you’re talking about in live shows, though I don’t see it as much as a detriment. I can spent a few hours learning a Django Reinhardt guitar solo, and then when we play that night my improvising catches some of that spirit.

    But the problem comes in learning “licks.” In music, if I just cop Tony Rice or Django, or Earl Scruggs licks, and string them together, I sound like a clone. If I learn their licks as springboards to playing my own things the way I feel them, I have a strong foundation and at the same time originality is born.

    From C.S. Lewis: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

  12. Profile photo of S. D. Smith

    S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    Fascinating stuff, Pete.

    I agree with you when you say that you try to just do your thing and then it is really embarrassing when you see something later that feels overly derivative.

    I try not to think about it much in first drafts, and think Loren is dead on about revisions being a good time for that kind of thing.

    I am charmed by the illusion of originality, but I go back and forth.

    I wrote a little on this myself here at the RR (http://www.rabbitroom.com/?p=3198), and I still feel that way. But it’s a weird tension.

    One of the many weird tensions in writing.

    I am excited to see what follows in your writing career after the Fiddling is done, Pete. You are such a thinker about the craft. I think your best is ahead.

  13. Ben G.

    Seems to me one good suggestion is always to be reading three or four different books at once, all by different authors.

    As for me, I don’t care much for McCarthy, but he’s probably worked his way into my writing like anybody else I’ve read. I’m still resolute in my use of capitalization and quotation marks, though.

  14. Jaclyn

    Thanks for the CS Lewis quote, Ron. I wish my angsty high school self had read it and quit wasting time fretting over being unoriginal.

    It’s such a relief to add Originality (along with Control) to my list of illusions. We’re such creative grasshoppers, huh? =)

  15. Jaclyn

    PS: Thank you to everyone (first to Pete for writing the post, of course). As always your writing enlightens and livens my work day!

  16. Joanne

    Pete, I absolutely do the same thing. When I need to write humor, I read humor, because it influences how I think and how I form sentences. When I’m reading literature, my own writing takes on a much more intelligent voice. But in the end I think I also use that influence as an excuse not to write – thinking that until I have something new to say and a new way to say it, I shouldn’t say anything. But that’s not really what art is, is it? What comes out of us is influenced by what we put in, so the shadows of other writers or musicians are naturally there in what we create.
    Thanks for making me think about this today. 🙂

  17. whipple

    Definitely. I am especially influenced by the cadence of essayists like Bill Bryson (because the hilarity gets to me) and Edward Hoagland, whose humble descriptions fly in the face of the bohemian fatalism of the day. Even listening to Ira Glass and Garrison Keillor on the radio shapes my writing. In music, listening to a new record or seeing a show shapes my work.

    I often combat this tendency by listening to something completely off-base or something that would be challenging for me to imitate. Right now, I have Arcade Fire, The Blue Nile, Derek Webb’s latest, and JS Bach flitting through the CD player. Each record presents its own difficulties for the chameleon in me. At the same time, they challenge me musically.

  18. Greg (aka Grego the Bald)

    Pete,
    I loved Fiddler’s Gun…..
    Blood Meridian, howesver, is perhaps the only book I ever read that I regretted reading. I’m hoping Fiddler’s Green bears little resemblance to it. I don’t want to give anything away about Blood Meridian, but Dang! I wanted that dude to die.

  19. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Oh, trust me, Fiddler’s Green is nothing like it in tone, subject matter, or theme. Whether or not there will be any similarity in style is another matter 🙂

  20. Debbie Forrest

    When I first started this “career” as a songwriter I thought it really unoriginal to learn covers, but the older I get the more I find that it takes a large amount of talent just to imitate the really great writers and musicians. It seems the that the more styles I learn to imitate, whether instrumentally or lyrically, the better I become as an artist. As Jason referred to at the first comment, the greats became my teachers.

  21. Pam

    Richard Mullins and I used to kick a rock back and forth between us on long walks. There were unspoken rules to that game; we deliberately kept placing that rock in the path of the other person; we punctuated our contributions to the conversation by kicking the rock. We kept it away from the street because we didn’t want to see each other get hurt. We kept returning the rock. When we’d come back to the place we initially started the game, we’d pick up the rock and one of us would pocket it. I felt a little embarrased at the time that a lot of my images revolved around Richard’s lyrics–how derivative! but I was young and did not realize the nature of the gift of art.

    Art contains life; art begets art. Walt Whitman said, “The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him.”

    Blessed is the pocket that is full of kicked rocks.

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