I spent my teens and early twenties in a place that smelled like an old shoe. I quit practicing martial arts a long time ago, but for twelve years my overriding passion was an eclectic blend of karate, judo and jujitsu that emphasized street techniques and self-defense. I also did a lot of sparring, and I traveled to different dojos in order to compete against talented people who would push me in unfamiliar ways.
One of these outside instructors approached me after after a lengthy practice session. “You’re a defensive fighter,” he said. “You wait and react to what your opponent does instead of attacking. I know because I fight that way too. It’s really hard to win as a defensive fighter. But it’s impossible if you don’t train accordingly.”
This instructor recognized that I was trying too hard to push myself in ways that were contrary to my own instincts and personality. I was desperately trying to improve my areas of weakness and completely ignoring my areas of strength. In fact, I was emulating my own sensei, a fabulous martial artist and teacher whose aggressive techniques had won him a national championship. But imitating his style only made me a second-rate competitor. Instead of learning to fight like him, I needed to learn to fight like me.
This same thing happens with writers. We are drawn to the works of authors whose words and stories seem effortless, who pull us in so thoroughly that we lose sight of how they are doing it. In this sense, ironically, we are drawn to the writers we understand least. We admire the skills we find difficult, and we disregard those that come naturally. We try hardest to master those skills we are least capable of.
I want to write like my favorite authors—Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein and C.S. Lewis—all rolled into one. But no matter how much I practice and polish and imitate, I will never be able to. The reason I am so drawn to them is that they are capable of things I can’t do.
Not that practice and revision and imitation are useless. But for me to spend years trying to capture the magic of Ray Bradbury’s voice would be foolish. I will never have quite the same mixture of mystery and awe and human nature and wordsmithiness one finds in The Martian Chronicles. I will never capture the precise blend of wonder and logic and theology and innocence one finds in Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia.
At some point we all reach the upper limits of our mediocrity. Wood can be sharpened, but not tempered. To make a knife, you need steel.
Learning to write well means, in part, discovering where your talents really lie. It means uncovering your writing identity. What forgeable skills do you possess? Can you tell the difference between hardwood and iron ore?
There is no easy path to finding your voice, your style, your message, your identity. Self-discovery takes time, especially as a writer. It’s a process. It takes practice and imitation and outside input. It takes beta readers with insight, people who can say, “Here, yes here, is where you moved me!”
You may be surprised when this happens. The sections in your early prose that readers admire may be those that came easily. The parts you labored over—that lengthy description of a beautiful mountain, for instance—may induce a yawn.
Readers, then, are a good place to begin. How they respond emotionally to your words can provide clues about what sort of writer you are.
But there are other indicators too. For instance, which authors and stories do you enjoy the most? Chances are, your favorites resonate because you share a similar vision for storytelling. Your appreciation of certain genres and emotions and themes might point to a level of passion that can drive your own work. My favorite authors all write speculative fiction.
On the other hand, it’s also likely that you don’t share your favorite authors’ technical strengths. Why? For the same reason their stories work so well on you. Andy Author’s themes and character arcs and story resolutions stir you deeply because you can’t see the techniques he’s using to create them. They’re invisible to you. And why are they invisible? Because they aren’t your strengths.
The techniques you do notice are the ones you do well and easily. When you notice them, they lose their effectiveness. Thus, they seem to appear in the works of “lesser” authors whose craft seems brutish and transparent. You wonder why Henry Hack has a following. After all, you can always predict where his stories are going. Why can’t everyone else? Answer: your talents are built on a similar foundation.
Of course, these are generalizations. Discovering your writing identity is not as simple as sharpening one’s natural abilities. It is not merely a matter of asking people to tell you what they like and dislike about your work. But these are good places to begin.
Sometimes the simplest clues can have the most profound impact.
Hearing that I was a defensive fighter and needed to train like one came as a relief. Lots of things fell into place that day, and I changed the way I practiced. That revelation of who I really was took me all the way to the national championship.*
*For those who want to know: I lost the championship match in overtime. By split decision. To my sparring partner. Who was also a defensive fighter. Apparently, he’d gotten the same advice.
What natural strengths have you noticed in your own writing?
Daniel Schwabauer, MA, is the creator of The One Year Adventure Novel and Cover Story Writing creative writing courses. His professional work includes stage plays, radio scripts, short stories, newspaper columns, comic books and scripting for the PBS animated series Auto-B-Good. His young adult novels, Runt the Brave and Runt the Hunted, have received numerous awards, including the 2005 Ben Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Children’s Literature and the 2008 Eric Hoffer Award. His third book, The Curse of the Seer, was released in the summer of 2015.