On Style and the Literary Disembowelment
by Alex Schumacher
They are stale. They are moldy. They contain absolutely no nutritional value. They are Bread Crumbs from the Void, and they are just for you! Congratulations on surviving another week in this long, strange trip called life. My own journey has included plenty of detours, sinkholes, and reconstruction. For me, comics and litmags have been a recurring part of the fucked up trek. If you too find that part of your journey is a head-on collision with the publishing industry, you are going to need a thick skin and a Kevlar vest. You will also need to set yourself apart somehow.
There are plenty of ways to distinguish yourself among the herd of nauseating Faulkner or Hawthorne wannabes. Find a point of view that is uniquely yours. Be it poor child from the slums, transgender teen enduring crime and punishment in bum-fuck USA, or young adult with a vestigial tail paying off their college tuition with fetish porn you have a perspective that is unmistakably yours. Whatever the case may be, spray that shit everywhere and mark your territory. Aside from a distinct point of view the most important aspect to craft is your personal style.
Style is the flow and the rhythm that erupts from a primal place. Style is the energy and pattern that is forged over decades, inspired by the many outside stimulus every one of us experiences. Music we hear, movies we watch, conversations we have, books we read, people we fuck, drugs we take are all contributors to the tapestry. Sometimes you can be affected in ways which go unnoticed or buried. To find your style you may need to do some excavating.
Confused yet? Well, you are either a moron (in which case I would have lost you a couple paragraphs ago) or you understand the overall idea of style is in and of itself somewhat ambiguous. It is difficult to nail, but unmistakably yours. It is the DNA you leave spattered on the hearts, minds, and gag reflexes of the reader long after your words have entered their consciousness.
Lemmy’s growl. Lucille Ball’s physicality. Ron Jeremy’s cock. While outwardly these three things seem unconnected, the fact is they all have one thing in common: they are the performer’s signatures. They are the calling cards for those who wield their power. Like brilliant comedic timing, or a foot long shlong, your style will be what helps to define you as a writer.
At times style can be subtle or understated to a degree of near invisibility. Other times it can leap off the page, grab the reader by the throat, and spit blood in their face. Minimalist or experimental. Philosopher or bar stool prophet. Ultimately your stylistic choices are yours, and yours alone, although it is best to let your style find you. Let it evolve from your collective experiences. Channel the good, the bad, and the repulsive. There is nothing worse than an artificial style.
So, just what the hell is style?
Charles Bukowski defined style in one of his poems as follows:
“Style is the answer to everything —
a fresh way to approach a dull or a
to do a dull thing with style
is preferable to doing a dangerous thing
The quote distills the essence of what I believe about style. Of course, word acrobatics cannot overpower terrible or lackadaisical writing. Dressing a piece of shit for the ball does not make it any less of a piece of shit. The only way to find your style is to put in hours upon hours hunched over your keyboard. Evaluate different styles through trial and error, but keep in mind it needs to remain authentic. You are the only one who can sound like you.
Think about how you speak when you are with your friends. Play some of your favorite music and analyze why the combination of lyrics and music elicits certain emotions. Pour over the books and movies you admire, and make the attempt to understand how the pacing can control and captivate an audience.
Style is finding how to share the orgasm produced by the sum of all of these factors. Style is in your bones, in the very fabric of who you are. The challenge is finding a way to put your sordid exploits down on paper. It might be an elegant and fluid style, or a jagged and bristly one. While not impossible, but highly improbable, you may stumble across a style that is completely new. The world has never seen anything exactly like you before, have they? Who knows, you might even find a select few who like your style.
If this still sounds vague so far, that is ok. I am about to take you elbows deep into the black and hairy holes of the two main components of style: voice and tone.
Find Your Voice
One of the important elements in finding a natural style is finding your voice. Voice in writing is the personality you are putting down on the page. In fiction you have at the very least a few different characters. Every single one of them should have their own voice. Complex stories are created using complex characters and, just like in real life, no two characters should be exactly the same. One could be the know-it-all. One could be the apathetic outsider. I tend to use friends and family for inspiration because they are colorful.
When I say colorful, I mean fucking nuts.
In nonfiction — such as this here article — the only voice I need to worry about is my own. There are no characters or ancillary players to speak of. I may be a bit of a smart ass, but also want you to feel as though I am speaking to you as a friend. Well, maybe not a friend, but at least an equal type being. In effect, that is my voice. I am the stranger you get shit-faced with and then join outside for a smoke and some conversation about life hacks. Just as with that example, my advice will always sound better when you are drunk.
There are endless voices to experiment with and there is no objective right or wrong. Find the voice that is true to the character, narrator, or whoever else may have a say during your piece. When I am writing (dialogue especially) one of my tried and true practices is to read specific excerpts of verse aloud. Not only do you get to fuck with your roommates and make them think you are bat-shit crazy, you will also have the opportunity to hear if a particular line comes across as forced, convoluted or odd. Whether it is intended for fiction or nonfiction, your voice should always sound as natural as possible.
Reciting your words, even if you are doing so with internal monologue, will also give you the perfect opportunity to figure out the tone.
Set the Tone
If voice in your piece is considered to be who is talking, then tone is most easily perceived as how it is being said. The tone must jibe with the voice. For instance, a cocksure hitman for the mob probably would not be mousey and ask for his mark’s permission before whacking him. Friends having a conversation at a bar would not be speaking in poetic soliloquy. Tone includes everything from word choice to punctuation. One of the tone’s jobs is to work with the voice to create your style.
The other is to elicit a very specific feeling and/or emotion in the reader.
Your tone might be one of wonder or pessimism. It could be hoity-toity, or weighted with naïveté. You might adopt the tone of an unreliable narrator, or that of a complete sociopath. You can change your tone to suit your writing project, but never go commando in another man or woman’s fatigues. That is to say, if you try on a tone that is not authentic or honest you will be shot down. If you were born with a silver spoon, trying to write a story or book about the sheer will to persevere through poverty will come off as phony.
In the event you have to strain or force a tone to work, it is time to move on and figure out a different angle. Tone should never come off as contrived or forced. Much like real constipation, grabbing on to that handle in the stall and pushing will only make matters worse. Or cause your rectum to prolapse. Wipe your ass, pull your pants up, and walk away. You can return when you are not as backed up.
If you have trouble finding your style initially, do not despair. It can often take a tremendous amount of time and walking miles in different shoes before discovering who exactly you are as a writer. Transcribe a story as though you were recounting a specific ordeal to a close friend. Stay loose and informal. Although this may sound contrary to the entirety of the article thus far, when it comes to style the less thinking you do the better. Just pick a scab and allow it to soak the page.
Together, the tone and voice that fit you best will give you a style that is uniquely yours. Be fearless. Be honest. Do not hold back any of the fire burning in your gut. Do not shy away from exposing your soul in all of its raw glory. Unless you are a fucking douche (I am looking at you, spirit of David Foster Wallace). Do not sound like a douche. All you can do is find a style that is true to you, run it up the flagpole, and see who salutes.
Though I do not typically find myself interested in genre writers, Stephen King has some damn fine things to say about the process. I will leave you with one such quote:
“A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”
Next Wednesday I will be diving head first into the manure pile of what draws a writer to write and some different avenues to explore. If you would like to share your experience in going down the writing rabbit hole, please feel free to shoot me an email. I may include them in the upcoming article. Until then keep scribbling, you freaks.
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