I’m afraid I did a bad thing. I passed off some of Anne Tyler’s writing as my own. But I was curious and figured, what the heck? Everybody else is doing it. I hear plagiarism is really trendy these days. Okay, seriously now, here’s how it went down:
Recently, I took a writing class to give my fiction a bump. I’d never taken a writing class before, and had heard good stuff about this one. I knew for sure I’d learn some things and hopefully get inspired, so I gave it a shot. The teacher started out by railing against all the other writing courses and books and methods out there. He said he hated how they all taught that their way was the only way. Then guess what? Get ready for some literary irony here: he taught that his way was the only way. I know, right? He did pull me aside after the second class, when he’d had a chance to read some of my work. He knew right off I wasn’t a beginner, which was nice, but after the initial love-in, he proceeded to eviscerate every scrap of writing I turned in.
Now lest you think I’m overly sensitive to writing critique, I want to defend myself. I’ve been getting critique for many years and have developed a business-like approach. If it helps the story, I take it. If it doesn’t, then I don’t. Obviously every writer wants to be told how great their work is, that their words sing from the page. My philosophy on critique is, if it hurts, then it’s probably true. In other words, if the critique stings, then it must mean on some level, you agree with it. I’ve been telling this to my kids for years; the only way someone’s words can hurt you (and I believe words can hurt waaay more than sticks and stones) is if you believe them.
His critique of my writing didn’t hurt my feelings the way true criticism usually does, when I know I need to go back in and make the changes. Although he did make some valid points, most of it flat out didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and a lot of it centered on how I wasn’t following his formulaic method for writing fiction.
I pulled out copies of all my favorite novels, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Breathing Lessons, I Know This Much is True. I mean, Irving, Tyler, Lamb—these guys are the best. My idols. Surely they must be following his secret formula for literary success? It was then I got an idea. One of my wonderful, awful ideas. I copied word for word eight random passages from Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Breathing Lessons, and handed it in. (Full disclosure: since he already knew my writing style, I changed the formatting of hers. She writes big, long paragraphs. I don’t. So I broke her paragraphs down. I also changed the character names and said it was “a few pages from another novel.”)
Yeah, I know. It was a bitchy thing to do. But I learned more from that exercise than the whole rest of the class. Copying her words, it felt like I was channeling her style, so different from mine and then simultaneously, weirdly, not so very different underneath it at all. I learned there’s no precise formula for writing a great story. Sure there are rules and guidelines and I suppose you have to know the rules before you can break them, but every great story is as individual as the writers that wrote them. And when Teacher eviscerated Pulitzer Prize winning Anne in the same way he had me, I felt vindicated. If in his eyes I’m such a terrible fiction writer, at least I’m in very good company.