I have this nasty habit of explaining music in terms of who the artist (or band) sounds like. Oh, you know, it's kind of a Beck meets Jack White and has a baby with Aretha Franklin. (hmm, that would be a cool sound).
I say nasty habit, because I never know if I am honouring or insulting the music. One of my favorite local bands, no longer around (Western States), in my mind were a dead ringer for Wilco. (See: all things I obsess about: here they are on Colbert.)
Love, love, loved all of the Western States, especially the lead singer and main writer. I had the luck of attending one of their album releases, where I met the lead guy, and asked him - so, who are your influences? I waited for him to say Jeff Tweedy and the Boys, but he didn't. He said, Neil Young. But, but... Okay, well, Neil is amazing. But don't you think you guys sound kinda like Wilco? Especially early Wilco?
"Oh yeah, sure. But it's cooler to say we were influenced by Neil."
Huh. I guess I landed on the insult button there. Though, I still wonder what he meant. Sure, Wilco was influenced by Neil (damn, who wasn't?)... but, but, but. Own your influence man!
Okay, before I get too indignant. Let's talk about this in terms of that big buzz word for writers: VOICE. As in, you gotta find your voice... man. I think it needs a "man" at the end.
When I started writing, I was majorly influenced by Salinger, Carver, Marquez, and for sure Hemingway. I had what George Saunders referred to as a "Hemingway Boner." (now there's a literary term for ya). So while I searched for my voice, I was looking for it somehow within these influences. Problem is, I just end up sounding like an imitation-Hemingway. A faux, ersatz, lesser, stinkin-up-the-joint version of Papa H. actually.
I watch a lot of writer interviews. Hey, I don't get out much! And over the years, I've come to understand this imitation phase as natural. Saunders had that Hemingway boner for a long time, until he finally figured out it was fake. Someone, maybe John Gardner, said that you need to read all the Hemingway you can get your hands on... and then read all the Faulkner you can, to get Hemingway out of your head.
I think what I've realized is that the voice thing will come along, and you need not force it. I was really struck by a Tobias Wolff interview I watched tonight on the treadmill (yeah, yeah, see above comment) - in the interview he is asked a question about voice. It doesn't help that the interviewer is kinda nerdy herself. But it was refreshing to see a great writer and teacher like Wolff (who incidentally was Saunders' Prof at Syracuse), respond by saying that voice was overrated. And writing doesn't really work that way.
I've had a lot of writer/reader obsessions over the years. Read this blog, you will find them. And I have seen my own work as a writerly stew of the people I read. If someone happens to comment that my latest novel sounds a bit like Richard Ford, well, I will proceed to bear hug that person, and possibly offer to buy the next round, or three. But I think, more importantly, I am starting to understand that my writing is not some French reduction of Ford, DeLillo, and a shot of Carver (hey, I'm a cook, I'm allowed the metaphor). Moreover, my work is staring to sound like, well, me. For instance, I actually use the word "moreover" when I talk - and not just for effect! (I think.)
Why isn't there a compound word "lessover". Like when I want the next thing I say to mean even less than the thing I just said.
I digress. Usually.
So while it might be good to know who you sound like in the beginning - we all sound like someone. It is better to sound more and more like yourself. This is way harder than you can imagine. Saunders remarked that rewriting makes him sound even more like himself than he is.
And there is nothing lessover about that.
Deep? Yeah, I know.
The interview below is around a half-hour long, and looks like bad cable TV (that opening!) - but it is worth it for the wisdom Tobias Wolff shares. And yes, that interviewer is kinda geeky. But I listen to writer interviews on the treadmill - so what the hell do I know?