Sponging, the Sincerest Form of Flattery?

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life including brat, dork, drama queen, funny, fat, silly, a sponge.  Granted, a good chunk of those, any many more like them, were given to me by my three older brothers so no need to fill our comment section with how I’m not fat. (Although, if you must, you must, who am I to stop you?) But that last one was given to me by a Theatre professor during a week long theatre program at local university during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school.

The professor was lecturing us about the qualities of a good actor and he mentioned that being “a sponge” is one of the best characteristics to have. I remember thinking “Crap, we’re going to have to act out the life of a sponge as our next exercise.” Thankfully, we did not have to pretend to be a porous substance used to mop up spills and breed germs. His point was that a sponge soaks up whatever liquid is around it. It absorbs. His hope for us was that we would absorb every detail that surrounds us, to put it in our bag, and bring it out when we need it.

So, what does being a sponge have to do with writing? While editing my nano novel I ran into a problem. I was happily trudging along with my red pen, laughing gayly at the entire paragraphs that were being crucified for the sake of a better story, when I got to chapter four. Chapter four takes place in the town’s local bar. Before I go further, let me just note that my contemporary story takes place in a small eastern PA town, right outside a major metropolitan area. So you can imagine my surprise when everyone started sounding like they just walked off a cattle ranch…in 1892. WHAT? Where the hell did that come from? I frantically flipped through the chapter. Everything from the phrases I used to describe actions, to the character’s words themselves, were all conducive of a western. Thinking it was just a fluke, I did my edits and proceeded to the next chapter where I was promptly transported to Regency England. Oh, hell. It was then that I remembered reading a Catherine Anderson novel (western romance) and a Julia Quinn (historical romance) during the time I was writing the novel. I laughed, then I cried. I guess I took that whole sponge thing a little too seriously.

It’s true I’m one of those people that can pick up an accent after 30 seconds of talking to an Irishman. I hone in on people’s mannerisms and idiosyncrasies very quickly.  Let’s just say I’m a hoot at parties. But this sponginess quality is not helping me with my writing. Or is it? Since I’m new to this writing game I keep on seeing blogs telling me to “find your own voice.” I started to realize that I don’t have a voice. Well, I mean I have a voice, just not one that I can keep constant throughout my novel. I’m too easily swayed by what I’m reading and I subconsciously put it in my own work. Within the first few pages of a new novel I can tell who the author is without looking at the cover, if its one of my favorite authors, that is. There’s something about their style, their voice, no matter what the actual book is about. Then I apparently borrow that voice and use it for my writing. Not good.

So, here are my questions to the writers out there: How does one go about finding one’s own voice? Do I just continue writing and hope that one day I will be able to write an entire work in the same voice? Is being able to imitate others helping me or hurting me as a writer? And if someone called you a sponge would you thank them or would you feel dirty and want to take a shower?

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4 Responses to Sponging, the Sincerest Form of Flattery?

  1. anaquinn says:

    I am still working out the answers to those questions myself, but I will let you know as soon as I figure it out! My southern novel has a bit of the northeast and some British in there, too.
    As for the last question, I think I would just stand there and stare at them like they were a bumbling idiot not capable of asking coherent questions! 🙂

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