“I spent a great deal of my early years trying to be Barbara Walters. I worked so hard at it and got nowhere. Then one day, I decided that I was just going to be me, and if people fell in love with that, then I knew I could repeat my performance because I was being honest and true.” – Oprah Winfrey
Before It Went Wrong
I started writing in high school. My parents insisted I take at least one college-level class, so I picked a writing course. I was hooked from the start. And even though writing was the only thing I took seriously in high school, I never really gave it much thought. I just…wrote.
And then one day, it all changed. It was the day I considered showing my work to the general public and, God forbid, even selling it. From that point on, writing seemed to be less liberating. What had happened to me is something I’ve seen happen to a number of writers and (from reading the quote above) even happens to famously talented individuals – I began trying to be someone I wasn’t.
Being Ernest Hemingway
I have a mildly unhealthy infatuation with Ernest Hemingway – unhealthy in a way that once warped my own writing style into a nebulous, insincere mess.
The second I began to consider selling my work, I began to have doubts about my writing. So, surrounded by this cloud of doubt, I started studying all of the works of art that had connected with me. Of all the writers I’ve ever read, Hemingway rarely fails to speak directly to my soul. So, I convinced myself that if I could decode his style and find out what it was that I loved so much, I could use it in my own work. If I could do this, certainly that would mean that I could connect with my readers as well.
For a great deal of time, I attempted to write like Hemingway. And after that great deal of time had passed, I had a great deal of worthless work. It was okay, but it definitely wasn’t Hemingway and it wasn’t worth selling. And then one day, I too came to an important realization:
I’M NO ERNEST HEMINGWAY!
I realized that if somebody wanted to read a Hemingway-style book, they would just go read Hemingway. Why would anybody want to read a sawn-off, half-baked version of Hemingway? I also realized that Ernest Hemingway was likely the author he was because it was “his time”. The world was ready for him. The world needed his stories at that very moment. So, one might argue that Ernest Hemingway may not have become “Ernest Hemingway” if he were born today.
The Scary Stuff
It’s tough for me to criticize those authors. I’ve been there. I know exactly what it’s like to want people to accept your work. And when you see people around you being successful in a particular genre, it’s tempting to try to decode that genre or their particular style and assume you’ll get the same results. But you won’t. And I’ve got news for you, the acceptance you’re looking for is not the acceptance you really want. Do you really want to gain acceptance as a novelist who fakes interest in vampires? Or as a YA novelist who longs to write for an adult audience?
Writers are successful when they write from their honest heart. That doesn’t mean that writing from your heart is an automatic leap to success. But it’s the only true first step in that direction. And once you take that first step, you’re opening yourself up to chance. Suddenly, you’re standing on a hill, holding a metal rod and waiting for lightning to strike. Maybe it will strike, maybe it won’t…but you’ve definitely done everything you can to make it happen.
The fact is: most people are too scared to put the real them out there and say “take me for who I am.” Writing is so deeply personal. And when it’s done well, it’s basically the same as stripping your clothes off and running through the streets naked. There’s nothing to hide behind and there’s nothing fake about it. It’s the real, true you and it’s very, very scary.
When I was in high school and college, I didn’t care about what others thought about my writing. I just…wrote. But that was cowardly – basically the same as walking around naked in my apartment. But when I decided to step outside, I tried to hide behind something that wasn’t honest. I tried hiding, naked, behind Ernest Hemingway.
Be brave. Step out from behind your Ernest Hemingway and write something true and honest. Write the way you want to write. Write about what you want to write about. If you do that and people fall in love with you, you can repeat that performance over and over. And you never know, the world might be ready for you. The world might need your stories at this very moment.
Peyton Farquhar is the Nashville, Tennessee author of the fiction series A War Below. The first installment Run (currently available from iTunes, Amazon and Barnes & Noble) was released in February 2012. Hunt (the second book in the four book series) is set to be released in early June 2012. The series follows Moses Jones, a slave whose attempted escape to freedom triggers events that force him into an underground world of espionage, revenge and murder. The gritty action series is inspired by true stories from the Underground Railroad and its secret involvement behind the scenes of the American Civil War. You can follow Peyton on twitter @peytonfarquhar, and you can find out more about the series here.
- Vintage Hemingway (themillions.com)
- Voices from the Grave #19: Ernest Hemingway (onetrackmuse.com)
- Reading group: Take your Ernest Hemingway reading further (guardian.co.uk)