I love Douglas Adams. When I started writing my novel, I set out to write an Adams-esque book. “The American Douglas Adams,” I imagined the reviews saying, or perhaps something like, “Not since Douglas Adams, has an author been so damn funny” (Don’t judge me writers — you know you secretly dream up glowing reviews of your own unpublished works). However, as I began to write, I found that I was forcing my story into a mold it didn’t want to go into. It was like driving a car that’s out of alignment. As much as I wanted that car to stay between the yellow lines, it wanted to go careening off the highway into a California Redwood at 100 mph, leaving me such a mangled mess that I would have to be identified by my one remaining finger or perhaps my teeth embedded in the dash board—
Wait … where was I? Oh yeah …
Well, you get the idea. There’s no use trying to take the story in a way it doesn’t want to go. I found my book taking a more serious turn, and though some of the humor remained, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy it was not.
After my third draft, I decided my book was an utter failure and I quit it for about half a week. I felt like I couldn’t make it work and so I collapsed into one of my all-to-frequent depression spirals. I sat whimpering on the couch with a box of tissues in my lap, eating cheesecake(s) and watching Shaun of the Dead (the best romantic comedy ever) on a continuous loop.
That’s when I discovered Cormac McCarthy. Reading McCarthy after a Douglas Adams kick is like having a wartime field medic, fresh from the front lines, show up at your kid’s birthday party. I read Blood Meridian and thought, my God, this guy is a genius! Forget funny. I must be deadly serious, violent even, and dreamily introspective! My characters should spit a lot, and get in knife fights, and ride horses. I could hear it now, the critics saying, “Hot damn, it’s Arthur C. Clarke meets Cormac McCarthy!”
Reinvigorated, I rewrote my first chapter channeling McCarthy. I was so very proud of it. So proud, in fact, I shared it with a few people and the response was generally, “I don’t know what the hell is going on here and it’s boring and why don’t you learn to use a comma or two instead of all those ‘ands’ and for the love of god figure out what a quotation mark looks like.” (Those of you familiar with McCarthy understand the comma and quotations thing)
All this to say, the world only needs one Adams, one McCarthy, one Hemingway, one Clarke, etc, etc. Anyone that attempts to be them will be relegated to the ranks of the rip-off artist, they will be a byline, forever described as, “that person that writes like ________.” Sure, there may be some successes, however fleeting, that ride the waves of another person’s hard work, but do we really want to be that person? I’d rather be the one other writer’s want to mimic, but being an original is hard, with little payoff and a hopelessly uncertain future. We all know what works, a glance at the bestsellers list makes that obvious. What doesn’t work is almost as obvious — it sits in slush piles the world over. Discovering what could work but hasn’t yet been tried, though, is a much harder thing to ascertain.
I suppose that’s what they mean when they say we must “find our voice.” All we can do is hope that when we do find it, someone is listening.