My prior blog post dealt with Ernest Hemingway, and the inordinately strong influence his writing style had on so many young authors, including myself. In that post, I recalled a high school English teacher, who had been a writing mentor for me—she admonished me to “Get that man out of your head!”
But doing so proved far more difficult than expected.
For a writer, finding one’s own “voice” can be elusive and frustrating—and all the more so if one is still young, and hasn’t yet developed a consistent voice for dealing with life itself.
Although I had no idea about how to try to find my writer’s voice, there was one thing of which I was fairly certain: Since trying to imitate Hemingway’s writing style had become a stultifying trap for me—I absolutely believed that endeavoring to imitate anyone else’s style would prove equally disastrous.
But I was wrong about that.
One of the most interesting series of assignments I recall during my years majoring in English Literature and Creative Writing back in the early 1970’s was precisely the thing I feared—being asked to imitate the style of various writers. It was the first semester of my sophomore year, and I was taking a class exposing newly declared writing majors to various forms such as prose, poetry, and essays. The instructor often had us read works by different authors, and then had us try to write in their style.
The specific assignment that turned out to be life-changing for me was being asked to read the novel Steps by Jerzy Kosiński, and to write a short piece imitating its style. Steps is not a novel in the traditional sense—it’s only about 170 pages long, and is comprised of a series of short, loosely related vignettes, narrated by an unnamed character, with scenes that take place in locales that are never explicitly named or described. Though it won the National Book Award in 1969, it never caught on much with readers—perhaps because it can be disturbing and disorienting to read—or perhaps because many of the vignettes deal with brutal revenge scenarios, and depraved sex.
For some reason though, I loved the book, and I found Kosiński’s style effortless to write in. I think it was because of all the writers this teacher asked us to imitate, Kosiński’s was most like what mine was eventually meant to be.
But his style in this particular work also seemed to me courageous and emancipating, in that it simply did away with what I’ve come to call the “connective tissue” that most writers feel compelled to include in their novels: descriptions of the visual appearance of people and places, the humdrum activities that get characters from point-A to point-B in order to have the next meaningful scene play out. Kosiński left all of that to the readers’ imagination in Steps.
I completed the Steps assignment nearly fifty years ago, but Kosiński’s approach to writing continues to influence my work to this day.
Structurally, I don’t write exactly as Kosiński did in Steps, but I do tend to be scrupulous about minimizing “connective tissue” in my work.
And if you’ve read my novels, you know that there are strange goings-on, both sexually and otherwise. Unlike with Kosiński, no matter how weird the sex in my books gets, it’s generally consensual, and the violence is more psychological than actual—but Kosiński’s influence is definitely there.
My actual narration style is a bit less spare and more playful than his, but the direct type of storytelling I employ still reeks a good deal of Kosiński as well.
I am sad to say that Jerzy Kosiński suffered a fall from grace as he reached middle-age. His new novels were not well received (though I continued to read, and greatly enjoy, every one). Then came accusations of plagiarism—claims that he did not actually write the books attributed to him. Those allegations were refuted by credible sources, but his image remained tarnished. For me, as someone who was so deeply immersed in Kosiński’s style and perspective, it was irrefutably clear that those novels were all written by the same person.
Nonetheless, these setbacks took their toll. His health began to fail. In 1991, at age fifty-seven, Jerzy Kosiński ingested a huge dose of alcohol and drugs, sealed his head in a plastic bag, and bid farewell to this world.
I would have loved to read the fiction he produced as an older man, infused with the wisdom and experience he had gained. I regret that I will not have the privilege of doing so.
But I remain profoundly indebted to Mr. Kosiński for his help in finding my voice as an author.