Yesterday, I wrote a guest post for my father-in-law, Seth Barnes, about how my dream to write is a killer mountain like K2. Today, my friend Matt Snyder posted another of my posts about dreaming.
In both of them, I committed theft.
I didn’t steal the content. No, I’m innocent of plagiarism. Instead, I stole someone else’s voice.
Steven Pressfield says he can’t read authors with strong voices anymore (he cites Philip Roth) because they rub off on him. That’s fine for Steve, but for us fledgling writers, those voices are like calcium supplements. They make our bones strong.
Lately, I’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. This is a problem because Annie Dillard has a unique and beautiful voice, and without meaning to, I stole it. I’m slightly embarrassed about it, so keep it on the DL.
I can’t blame myself though. Her style is graceful and complicated, and there is no way I could do it justice. However, she does some interesting things I picked up easily enough. And so can you.
So here is your two-step formula to write like Annie Dillard:
1. Build a Metaphor. In Annie’s non-fiction, she regularly starts a point with an elaborate metaphor: the polar explorers or alligator wrestlers or stunt plane pilots. Her metaphors are vivid:
The crowd watched the young Indian and the alligator twist belly to belly in and out of the water; after one plunge, they failed to rise. A young writer named Lorne Ladner described it. Bubbles came up on the water. Then blood came up and the water stilled (p 74).
In my post on Seth’s blog, I wrote about the second tallest mountain on earth, K2, during the 1986 climbing season. The mountain killed thirteen climbers that year. Here’s how I described it:
Later that year, seven climbers got stuck in a storm at 26,000 feet. Only two made it home, and they paid for their lives in fingers and toes, lost to frostbite. One climber was found a year later by the Japanese team leaning against a rock wall. She was frozen stiff.
It’s not half as good, but can you see Annie’s influence? I’m a thief. I know it.
2. Switch to Second-Person Point-of-View. After building her metaphor, she throws us, the readers, right in the middle:
This is your life. You are a Seminole alligator wrestler. Half naked, with your two bare hands, you hold and fight a sentence’s head while its tail tries to knock you over.
See how she switches to second person? This is where the point she is making and her metaphor collide. Here’s how she rubbed off on me:
Your dream wants to kill you. You fall 3,000 feet to your death. One hundred thousand pounds of snow and ice collapses on you. You get stuck in the open in much-too-cold weather, and they find you years later, still standing but frozen stiff.
Easy enough, right? Now you try.
Practice writing like Annie Dillard for fifteen minutes. First, make a point. Writing is hard, for example.
Next, build a metaphor. What else is hard? Running marathons? Running a marathon everyday for a year like this guy.
Last, switch to second-person point-of-view. Your feet start to bleed. You run on them anyway. You can’t afford to tear through another pair of shoes. You learn to run barefoot. The sun paints your skin brown. You run through the snow. It is hard and your breathes come in sharp stabs but you are writing. Writing! You are thankful for the blood and the stabs because you are writing.
Don’t forget to post your practice in the comments.