August 5, 2010


Sometimes when I go to the movies, I emerge from the theater feeling like one of the characters. I did this with Norma Ray. In real life, I was as a union organizer at the time, so by identifying with Sally Field’s character I felt ennobled by my work. But I suspect I’m not alone in these fantasies. When I was young, my mother and I went to see Gone with the Wind. For a week after, my parent, who is Costa Rican and speaks with a Spanish accent, developed a southern twang. It made her nearly incomprehensible, especially when she insisted I eat broccoli or told me to go to bed.

Books have the same effect on me. I don’t mean I imagine I’m one of the characters. I mean the plasticity of my brain makes me susceptible to the styles of other writers. If I read too much Dickens, my sentences become a labyrinth when I write. The opposite is true if I’m exposed to Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Suddenly, my words march in subject-verb order across the page like monotonous ants. Imagine what chaos might occur if I were to pick up Chaucer and Gertrude Stein at the same time.

Still, I marvel at the brain’s capacity to mimic. To this day, there are lines of poetry, or phrases from a book or a play that have taken up permanent residence in my head and influence my prose. I love their imagery, or their cadence or their thought and if I’m not careful, they are reborn in what I write. Sometimes, I allow them to stay. Sometimes I must be stern and shoo them away because the mimicry borders on plagiarism. My intention is not to cheat, but expressions exist that are so elegant one is unable to find another way to describe an idea: “petals on a black wet bow” (Pound); “lilies springing from a dung heap” (Strindberg); “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons” (T.S. Eliot).

I have no illusion I shall ever be an innovator like Proust or James Joyce or Emily Dickinson.“I am an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a progress, start a scene or two…’” * Oh dear, there I go again. 

It takes courage to be a writer and live in the shadows of greatness. It is hard not to mimic, especially if one fears one’s own voice is a whisper. Still, there is room in this world for the mountain and the grain of sand. A writer learns from the masters. His craft is to develop his own voice. 

I suspect the same courage is required for the way we live our lives.

*T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”