Many years ago, at an author event, someone in the audience asked me, “If you could write like anyone, who would it be?” At the time, I had finally clawed my way out of the unpublished writer’s corner and was still finding my own writer’s voice. The answer to the question was obvious: Like myself, of course. I wanted to write like the best darned Kate Flora that I could.
Two decades, and twenty-one books later, I know that there are many, many answers to that question. The library is full of authors whose work has magical aspects I would like to have. Of course I would like to write like John Steinbeck, the only writer ever who, after I read Cannery Row, left me writing in his style for a week or two. I would love to write his characters and his hooptedoodle chapters and just generally be able to convey his evident deep fondness for his characters. In his ten rules for writers, Elmore Leonard says this about Steinbeck:
What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”
And speaking of Elmore Leonard, who wouldn’t like to write like him, with brilliant dialogue and ways of conveying characters almost entirely through their actions. When I teach, I always read my students Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writers, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html, and then tell them that they can break any of these rules if they
Writing well enough if, of course, the key. Most of us would love to be able to write like James Lee Burke, who can pull off a ghost story in the midst of a compelling contemporary mystery story in In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. An opening like this can make you glad he disregarded the advice to never open a book with the weather:
The sky had gone black at sunset, and the storm had churned inland from the Gulf and drenched New Iberia and littered East Main with leaves and tree branches from the long canopy of oaks that covered the street from the old brick post office to the drawbridge over Bayou Teche at the end of town. The air was cool now, laced with light rain, heavy with the fecund smell of wet humus, night-blooming jasmine, roses, and new bamboo. I was about to stop my truck at Del’s and pick up three crawfish dinners to go when a lavender Cadillac fishtailed out of a side street, caromed off a curb, bounced a hubcap up on a sidewalk, and left long serpentine lines of tire prints through the glazed potholes of yellow light from the street lamps.
Go ahead and match that!
This week, I am a prepping to write a short story, due way too soon, that must take a presidential election in a different direction from the way it went. Having decided that Huey Long will be my character, I am immersed in a reread of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. I do not want to start writing like Warren, but I am definitely caught up in his long, deep descriptions of almost everything. At this point in the book (early!) our narrator, Burden, is following an early Willie Stark campaign. He is lying on his bed, listening to Stark pace the follow in the room next door, described thus:
I’d be lying there in the hole in the middle of my bed where the springs had given down with the weight of wayfaring humanity, lying there on my back with my clothes on and looking up at the ceiling and watching the cigarette smoke flow up slow and splash against the ceiling like the upside-down slow-motion moving picture of the ghost of a waterfall or like the pale uncertain spirit rising up out of your mouth on the last exhalation, the way the Egyptians figured it, to leave the horizontal tenement of clay in its ill-fitting pants and vest.
Whew! I’m impressed but boy is it slow going, and there are 600 pages in the book. As I read, I wonder what Elmore Leonard would have to say about the book. I’m also loving the slow, stately pace of the writing and wondering how a crime scene would feel if I imported some of Warren’s style.
So since I have to get back to my homework, I leave you with this question. Whose writing impresses you? Knocks your socks off? Makes you catch your breath? Makes you want to copy out paragraphs in a notebook to save for future reference?