One of my favorite quotes from any writer, ever, is this one by Vladimir Nabokov:
“Burn pendants in pale fire. Accept no fashions. Be your own fashion. Do not rely on earlier triumphs. Be new at each appearance.”
I don’t even know where to start.
Of course, this is darn-tooting good advice for writers. Come to think of it, it’s perfect for anything.
But let’s stick to writing for now. In my daily job, it’s easy for me to get sucked into a routine in the style of my writing. Recently, I was writing a press release, about an annual event. I took a look at the previous year’s event to see what I had said. Maybe that was a mistake. I was tempted to simply update the language. Instead of using the word “iconic” to describe the hotel where this event would take place, I wanted to use “historic.” Instead of writing, “honor” the recipient of an award, “I wanted to write, “pay homage” for this year’s recipient.
Had Nabokov been in the room, he would have slapped my hands off of the keyboard and pushed me out of my chair. Actually, he may have asked me what was that contraption of a typewriter, but let’s save that for a story about time travel.
Think about the last time you read something that took your breath away with its power and beauty. It doesn’t happen often. As a writer, it’s damn hard to achieve.
Still. . . we have to try. We can’t fall into traps of go-to words and phrases, or updating last year’s press release, or speech, or whatever it might be. Actors who are doing remakes of a movie will often say they did not watch the original version. They want to be fresh.
Look at your work. Notice the similarities, notice your habits. Now kill them.
Then there are these two gems from Nabokov’s quote: Accept your own fashions. Be your own fashion.
This is a mistake young writer’s make; well, it’s a mistake I made as a young writer. I would read Eudora Welty and sit down and try to write in a way that made me feel like her writing had made me feel. Too often, I ended up being a bad copy of the great writer.
Writing isn’t easy, whether you are writing fiction, or an article, or a business letter. If it were easy, the world would be full of Nabokovs. Like a fingerprint, a writer’s voice is unique from any one else. Find your style, then be your own fashion, and be new at each appearance.
If we can somehow manage all the good advice found in Nabokov’s quote, then we’re doing okay.