Saturday, October 16, 2010

What constitutes a "real writer"?

On Twitter, I've been following all sorts of writers and teachers, trying to see if these issues (of grammar, voice, authenticity, etc.) are coming up in the real world. Today, I saw a tweet that asked followers to check out a new blog post, "Are you a real writer?" on Corey Mandell: Professional Screenwriting Workshops. 

The blog talks about advice from screenplay writers to novice writers. The big skills are apparently having a unique, original, authentic voice and telling a story no one's told before. 

After reading theorists like Joseph Campbell, however, I'm not sure that such a thing exists. Everyone says, "you need to write original stories," but archetypal theory shows us that there are no original stories. We are simply repeating the same motifs over and over again. Even Harry Potter is essentially a mix of Cinderella and the boarding school novel. So are there any original stories? How can we be original if we're really just pulling from stock characters and stock situations that have been stuck in our collective unconscious since the dawn of humanity?

I think the big point Mandell tries to make is the argument that "bad writers copy." The clear mark of a novice is someone who obviously imitates. Then again, aren't we imitating all the time? I'm sure I didn't come up with my style of prose from sitting in a vacuum. The writing I read influences me, consciously and unconsciously. The other half of the coin is that "good writers steal."

Furthermore, I think Mandell's screenwriting pals also give a nod to this idea of authorship, that writing comes from the person who creates it and nowhere else. There are lots of great movies and television shows that riff off of other's concepts. For instance, Goodfellas, Casino, and Carlito's Way. They all tell a very similar story and were written in a space of only five years from one another. Clearly, they were all also influenced by The Godfather. Yet, they're all classics, despite imitation. Unoriginality didn't hurt them one bit. Can you truly consider yourself the author of something, though, if you're imitating or collaborating? Does it matter?

And in the end, especially in screenplay writing, what the heck does voice mean? Especially an "authentic voice"? If you're trying to give dialogue to characters who clearly couldn't be you and give them their own voice, does your voice even exist?

1 comment:

Tara said...

One of the best pieces of writing I ever did in college was a pastiche (I hope I'm using the right term there...), and I completely copied the syntax from another short story. It was so valuable because it forced me to rethink my voice while I was writing and I think it made my writing stronger. This was definitely copying to some degree. I guess she would label this as "bad" writing, but I thought it was pretty good. I feel like writers are doing things like this all the time (using the influence of other voices in their own writing) but are not always doing it consciously. I agree with you, I don't think your "voice" is constructed in a vacuum.