As I writer, I have often heard these two bits of advice: don’t be afraid to steal, and, find your own voice. I will admit, though, that I have never heard them uttered in the same breath.
In case you’re new to the idea of stealing, check out Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. I love this book. It begins with the basic idea that there is nothing new under the sun. As an artist, you cannot help but steal. It goes on to talk about the best ways to steal as an artist. It’s a fun book to keep around (or to give to a writer).
As for finding your own voice, this advice seems to imply that stealing is the wrong way to go. To find your own voice you must find the words that are truly your own. When I was studying with Janet Fitch (White Oleander, Paint it Black), she insisted that every description, every sentence must be uniquely yours. I totally agree. She even went so far as to say that a writer should never go with her first instinct because our brains are lazy, and most likely you are borrowing words you have already heard, whether you realize you’re plagiarizing or not.
So how to reconcile these two seemingly conflicting bits of advice?
In a word: practice.
The way I figure, you must have creative input. Go to the theater. Visit a museum. Tour a sculpture garden. Read books you wouldn’t normally. And while you’re doing all this, take notes and pictures, and use any other method you can to capture the art that moves you. Let it infiltrate your brain with no fear of being accused of imitation. This is the stealing part.
Then, you have to let it swim around in your head for a while.
And eventually, you have to do the work. No two ways about it. This is part where you find your voice, the stage at which everything you have stolen will be transformed into something uniquely yours.
In grad school, we were given an assignment to write a paragraph about the same thing in three different ways, emulating three different authors. What a great assignment. Because no matter how hard I try, I am never going to be Elmore Leonard, or Isabell Allende, or Elizabeth Gilbert. The passages I wrote with every intention of copying them actually came out in a way only I could have done.
Maybe English needs a new word for the act of artistic stealing. Any ideas from the word nerds out there?