I suspect that identifying one’s own style may be the worst thing for a person’s writing. Trying to write like yourself poses the same danger as trying to write like someone else: it’s writing in bad faith.
Bad faith: I borrow this concept from Jean-Paul Sartre, who argues that when we identify too closely with our egos we limit our freedom to respond authentically to the demands of the moment. Sartre uses the example of a waiter who, instead of acting freely, always acts the way he thinks a waiter should act. Sartre calls this “acting in bad faith”: identifying too closely with a role you have to play.
It’s true of writing, too. In my first column last September, I argue that if we try to write like, say, a scientist — that is, if we try to imitate some abstract idea of what scientists are supposed to sound like — then we aren’t looking for the best way to answer those essential questions: who am I talking to, what am I trying to say, and why.
So, too, with style. If I’m trying to sound like Jim Hale (whatever a Jim Hale sounds like), I limit my freedom to tackle a subject with anything and everything it requires. I give up certain options simply because they don’t seem like something Jim Hale would say. I make stylistic choices not for how well they communicate the subject at hand but for whether they sound like that abstract entity I like to identify with: Jim Hale.
That’s like deciding that I’m going to use a hammer simply because I like to think of myself as the kind of guy who uses hammers — even before looking at the problem and seeing that, in fact, it calls for a wrench.
(In my mind’s eye I see someone walking around with a hammer just hitting things at random. I know people like that. Sometimes I think we’re all like that.)
It’s like deciding to quote Shakespeare not because he has a line that illustrates an idea perfectly, but because I like to think of myself — or want readers to think of me — as the kind of guy who quotes Shakespeare. But if Dr. Seuss has a line that illustrates the idea better, I have to be free to quote Dr. Seuss.
Case in point: many readers let me know how much they appreciated my two pieces on Charlie Hebdo. I would love my writing to always have that kind of impact, and as I drafted a later essay, I found myself imitating sentences from my earlier essays: similar grammar, diction, sentence structure, etc. All in an effort to have that kind of impact again?
Maybe not. I’m afraid I don’t know myself well enough to say certainly that it wasn’t my ego looking for more applause. From an evolutionary perspective, I suppose it’s understandable that we revisit strategies that have proven successful. But let’s be clear about what constitutes “successful” writing. If I’m writing just to make some noise or see my name in print or get more accolades, then I’m writing in bad faith and I should shut up.
Now I love hearing from readers that they enjoy my essays. I’m a performer; I like people to enjoy my performances, and it’s lovely to hear from readers. But we all know that’s not what it’s about.
Philosopher Gabriel Marcel argues that writers who imitate themselves are unfaithful to themselves as artists. As I see it, the problem is not that they’re unfaithful to themselves, but that they’re unfaithful to readers. If I’m simply imitating my own style, I’m not looking for the most authentic way to communicate — a way that’s clearer, that’s more germane to the subject, and that more effectively communicates to readers. Successful writing begins with my getting myself out of the way to give readers what they need to read and understand and enjoy (whether or not they tell me so). Being faithful to the reader rather than to my own peculiar stylistic fetishes: that’s writing in good faith.
When my step-daughter Katie was 8, she asked if I’d go with her to see James Cameron’s “Titanic.” I resisted at first because, I told her, it wasn’t my kind of movie. To which this sardonic 8-year-old replied: “But Jim, how do you know if you haven’t seen it?”
I felt like squid en su tinta — cooked in my own ink. And happily so: I tried to raise the kids to think critically, and here was Katie, at 8, giving me my own advice. Don’t criticize what you haven’t taken time to explore. We went to see “Titanic.” I didn’t like it, but now I knew why. Best of all, I got to spend an evening at the movies with Katie.
How we write and who we like to think we are, our likes and dislikes, our preferences and predilections: when we define these things too neatly, too squarely, we limit our freedom to be what the world needs us to be in the moment and rob ourselves of opportunities to be truly better parents, better writers, better waiters.
In his last and greatest book, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” Catholic monk Thomas Merton writes:
“We are all too ready to believe that the self that we have created out of our more or less inauthentic efforts to be real in the eyes of others is a ‘real self.’ We even take it for our identity. Fidelity to such a nonidentity is of course infidelity to our real person, which is hidden in mystery…. God help the man who thinks he knows all about himself.”
And God help writers who are too conscious of their own style. They’re like that guy who imagined, without bothering to taste them, that he didn’t like green eggs and ham.