Magpies, Spuggies, and the Art of Ex Nihilo

There is a tree full of magpies outside of our kitchen window and since we’re on the top floor, I often enjoy watching them play. They’re such curious and clever creatures but they have a reputation for thievery.

The magpies aren’t the only locals though. There is a tall evergreen in our neighbour’s back garden and sometimes I come home from work in the morning and make a cup of tea and sit and listen to the spuggies waking up. Some days the whole tree quivers with activity as the tiny birds chitter and chirp back and forth about their business. I’m particularly fond of them.

They remind me of the young writer I once was and of many young writers that I now know. This thought has lain half formed in my mind for some time but a recent discussion on fan fiction consolidated it quite nicely.

As writers, we are all magpies or sparrows or some blend of both. But I believe that until the balance tips from magpie to sparrow, you are not ready to call yourself a writer just yet. As we grow and develop in our craft, eventually only the playful curiosity of the magpie should remain.

Here, let me explain a bit better.

Magpies

It would be an interesting experiment to read the anonymous work of young writers and then compile a list of books that you think the writer has read and movies that they have seen. You would then give them the list and see how accurate your guess is.

Take this piece for example:

   As he neared a clearing in the woods, one he was sure had not been there before, a new scent hit him. Dark Moon watched, unseen from beneath the ancient pines, as the Bright-Beast-That-Bites-Hot crackled and growled at him. But that was not what he could smell.

He could smell Man.

Dark Moon slipped away, anger tearing at his heart. Had they not taken enough?

This young writer has evidently read the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness (the Wolf Brother Series). They are also very probably a White Fang fan.

Try this one:

   But no one cares. And now that you’ve seen what can become of the glossed over pain you will care a little more? The littlest things could have changed Marni’s mind, and many others like her. A smile, a word of love. Just something to know that someone out there cared.

Not all deep secrets will lead to me unless you let them. You see every single one of us has a secret. As I explain this to Marni she turns to me without fear and challenges me. She wants to know mine, to know how I know them all. So I tell her once more;

There are no secrets in Death.

Guess who read the Book Thief?

One of the most upsetting but constructive pieces of feedback I ever received was from my mother. If you hadn’t guessed, the above quotes are pieces I wrote when I was younger (twelve and fifteen respectively). I proudly presented her with the first piece, a short story about a wolf and a hunter.

I don’t remember her exact words but the sentiment has always remained with me.

She read it and I waited eagerly, proud of my work but nervous of sharing it. She said it was alright but it wasn’t very original. It sounded just like the Wolf Brother books.

I was gutted but I knew that what she said was true.

I was a magpie once, adopting the voices of the authors I loved the most. It was so clear in my writing. Looking back at some of the things I kept, I can see the truth of my mother’s feedback across the board. There is a folder marked Butterfly Jar on my computer, containing ideas, old and new, and snippets of useable prose from otherwise abandoned works. And it is easy to trace my reading habits through the writing styles of my teen years.

This is not unique though. I can see it clearly in so many young writers I know, just as my mother could see it in me. As much as I love reading other people’s work, young writers in particular, I also find it frustrating and disappointing. There are a number out there who have the makings of good writers and yet they are not writing, they are mimicking.

It is disappointing to read stories which are quite evidently attempts to rewrite Lord of the Rings or Eragon or the Hunger Games. The characters might be renamed and the setting changed but you can still hear the mangled voices of C.S. Lewis, Eoin Colfer, and Jane Austen through the pages.

Those who adopt or steal the voices and ideas of others are not ready to call themselves writers. That’s not to say they never will, just not yet.

We write because we have something to say to the world but if we don’t have a voice of our own, we can not say anything that has not already been said far better by someone else.

Sparrows

This said, one cannot deny that what we read will influence the way our writing developed. This is actually very important. But that’s the difference. We are influenced by what we read. We should not mimic it.

I realised recently that there are two reasons why I was a magpie for so long.

The first was that no one would hear what I had to say, that it wasn’t worth hearing anyway. High school didn’t help. I discovered that the only way to excel was to say exactly what they wanted you to say and I was never very good at that. The voice that says something different is so often drowned out by the crowd.

The second reason was that I was afraid that I would be heard. We all understand on some level that words have power but not all of us are sure that our words have power.

I didn’t know that my words would ever mean anything to anyone but me until I was struggling to express my pain and confusion at the loss of a friend and in their frustration my parents told me to just write it down.

So I did, not expecting it to make much difference, and left it on my parents’ bed for them to read later.

My mum came into my room that evening in tears, the paper in her hand and suddenly I understood that words are so much more than ink on paper. My words could be so much more than just ink on paper.

That’s why fan fiction annoys me so much. That’s why I get so frustrated with so many young writers (if I read one more story about elves with unpronounceable names…). Because they are stealing the voices and creations of those they admire. They have a voice but they are trying to use someone else’s.

The Art of Ex Nihilo

Ex nihilo. From nothing.

But then ex nihilo nihil fit they say, nothing comes from nothing. This is true in the creative realm. There is nothing new under the sun. If Solomon said that three thousand years ago we haven’t a chance now.

But we should still strive for originality in our work. I think that if I finally got published then a bunch of people started writing fan fiction about it, it would stress me out no end.

Get your own characters. Get your own story. Get a life.

If you want to be a writer, stop using other people’s scraps and find your own voice.

The most progress I’ve ever made with writing a novel, I wrote it ex nihilo. Seriously, I began with a blank notebook and a blank mind. It was stressful. I asked a bunch of what if questions until one bothered me enough to take it further and from that question sprung an entire world populated with unruly characters, each with their own unique tale.

Three years ago I began to blog here and only about halfway through that did I actually begin to find my voice. It was then that my worst fear was realised.

People began to hear me. You are hearing me now.

The temptation was to try and conform my voice to a more familiar style, to mimic the cleanness of Desiring God or the factual writing of the Gospel Coalition. The temptation was to try and sound like so many of the other young female Christian bloggers and comment on prayer, devotions, books, relationships, fashion, sewing, and baking.

But I love poetry to much to have the crisp, clear voice of Desiring God. I am too emotional and my mind is too full of butterflies for the succinct factual writing of TGC. And anyone who knows me knows that although I enjoy their writing from time to time, I am a far cry from the women of Girl Defined or She Reads Truth.

You are not any of those people either. You have a unique voice shaped by unique experiences and influences and I want to hear what you have to say.

Stop stealing for fear that your words aren’t as good as those you love to read. You have a different voice to them. If you have something to say then say it. Say it with your own voice and do not hide behind someone else’s.

If you want to be a writer, you cannot be a magpie, you must be a sparrow.

From blank pages and a dormant pen, call your own words and sing your own song. Sing it quietly if you will, some of the softest voices are the ones that are heard the loudest.

Sparrows are plain and unremarkable but their song is their own. It’s scary to use your own voice and it sounds so foreign at first. But it is not until you use that voice that you truly become a writer.

If you have something to say then say it. I’m sitting in the kitchen window with a cup of tea, watching the sun rise through the branches. And I am listening.

 

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