In graduate school I went through phases. I had my Cormac McCarthy phase, my Don DeLillo phase, my Tim O'Brien phase. Like a young athlete emulating his heroes, I paid homage to mine by copying their prosaic technique, voice, and style. McCarthy's sweeping vision, and long, stark, near-Biblical sentences; DeLillo's twisting language and genius sensibility; O'Brien's subtle potency, the conveyance of confusion, tragedy, and strange beauty in war. Story after story I tried to incorporate these traits and elements into my own work, until my advisor told me, "You're not Cormac McCarthy. Or DeLillo. Or Tim O'Brien. Just be you."
The problem was that I didn't know who I was. And I had such admiration for these writers (and still do, of course) I thought that if I could just write a sentence, and then a paragraph, then a page, then maybe even a whole story in their light, I might—just might—have a chance of reaching their level some day.
But it was what it was: cheap mimicry.
Still, as a writer and teacher of creative writing today, I tell my students to steal without remorse from their favorite writers. Technique, style, language, voice, imagery, subject matter, whatever: if you dig the way a writer does something, try it yourself.
This is not as hypocritical as it might sound. When I tell my students to steal, I am doing two things: 1) Encouraging them to read, and 2) asking them to think about their work in a way that will ultimately answer the question, "Who am I and where do I belong?"
Going to graduate school afforded me the time to read and write and think about these existential dilemmas, though my struggle was mitigated by the fact that I had no intention of making a living by writing fiction. My undergrad mentor told me, "Don't quit your day-job," sage advice that stuck with me; advice that is even more resonant today as the economy struggles and society makes art and literature more and more expendable.
So to arm myself with semi-marketable skills after grad school, I became editor of the program's literary magazine. As such, I had the chance to interview writers who came to town on their book tours. My last interview, conducted just before I graduated, was with Tobias Wolff.
I was a fan of his short fiction and This Boy's Life, but the interview started off shaky: his plane was late; then he could only give me thirty minutes; then I asked him about a bad review he once received, which lead to him lambasting the reviewer (off the record, of course). I thought he might call security and have me removed, not that he would have needed security.
But then we started talking about books and writers that he appreciated and he mentioned Stuart Dybek. I told him that I also liked Dybek very much, and taught his short story, "We Didn't" in my creative writing class (I still do). This changed everything—I was no longer at risk of being bounced, and our interview went over thirty minutes (but not by much).
I remember Wolff specifically talking about belonging to a kind of literary family, saying something to the effect that as writers we look to other writers whom we admire, and consider them our family, like a tribe: not because we share subject matter, content, or even form, voice, or style; but because we find kinship and inspiration in the spirit of the work.
This made perfect sense to me: I was neither a cowboy nor a genius, and I had certainly never fought in a war. But something about my literary heroes spoke to me, motivated me, made me envious and star-struck and inspired. And it is this inspiration that I encourage in my students who are still trying to figure out "who they are."
I tell them: Be everybody you can be. At some point you will figure out who you are, but more importantly who you are not.
As I did. I came to accept and embrace the fact that I could write about Chinese history and characters, and still consider McCarthy, DeLillo, O'Brien, and many others to be my inspiration, my literary family, my tribe. I am always adding new books and writers to the tribe, work that moves me, makes me want to be a better writer who sees and thinks about life in a transcendent way.
Through the years I have become my own writer, as I have become my own man, but a part of me and my work is always paying tribute to my personal pantheon of heroes, a pantheon that I hope to challenge, and maybe someday be a part of.
*Note: Upon rereading All the Pretty Horses recently, I came upon a scene that reminded me a great deal of a scene from my first novel, Sons of Heaven, where a beautiful girl comes to the young protagonist in the middle of the night. I could not help but think that I had stolen the scene subconsciously from Mr. McCarthy, but maybe I had not. For now I'll simply say, 'Thank you, Mr. McCarthy.'
If you have read both books, feel free to send me an email and let me know if I am a thief, good or bad.