photo found on photo dictionary
A long time ago people used a flint-like stone to test gold for its purity. By running the gold over the stone, they could see if the metal was real or not. They called this a touchstone, which is where I think the other definition originated - a test or criterion for determining the quality or genuineness of a thing. Not just gold.
Yesterday Davin posted about where originality comes from. Is it from our subconscious as we absorb everybody else's originality? Or is it from our own personal life experiences, from something deep inside us? What we mean when we say "write from your heart?"
In college I worked for the literary magazine, titled Touchstones. That's where I first learned about the term, and where I learned the importance of what Davin talks about in his post - copying. I know that sounds bad. We writers should never plagiarize or copy anything, right? I agree, to a point.
For several semesters, before I got onto the staff of Touchstones, I submitted my work to the magazine. It got rejected every time. I was frustrated. What was wrong with my work? It was good, I was an English major, written two novels in high school, blah blah blah. One night I took a current copy of the magazine home and read through every piece.
Nothing in it was like what I wrote. I realized I'd have to either be happy with never being published in the magazine, or write something that would fit. I studied the work in there, practiced writing, and basically copied the style of some of the writers. And I got accepted. I was astounded. Was it really that easy? So I started paying more attention to work outside of the magazine - especially Annie Dillard. I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, shocked at how beautiful her language was, and how deeply her thoughts reached into me. She was something genuine to me, something I could rub myself on to see if I could do what she had. I wanted to write like her, but put more of a fictional story to it. I wrote a short story titled, Clover, and submitted it to the magazine. The first bit of the story:
Slowly, the hills around my house burst into green. No longer virgin-white from the snow, they spread their life, their color, their vigor to neighboring hills until the entire valley breathes life. Pulsating from its filled lungs of color, I transform to spring, and watch as my four-year old daughter spreads her crayons across the table with one swipe of her hand, then sighs with approval.
Colors have a way of fascinating, whether wrapped in paper and stuffed in a box, or pushing fist fulls through topsoil, screaming, “I am here at last!”
The doctors say my daughter has two years left, perhaps three if she’s lucky. Her disease continues to spread, coiled inside her like a spring ready to burst and pierce vital organs with its fangs. I help her color. She misses the lines, but somehow creates a masterpiece. The smell of Crayola fills my head.
If you know Annie Dillard at all, you'll know nature is a huge pull for her. I copied that idea. I copied the slow, laid-back tone, her observing eye, her symbolism. Although others tell me this isn't necessarily copying, it was for me at the time.
This story changed my life. I was on the technical writing track, dead set against a creative writing major. I had always wanted to be a published novelist, but knew I'd never be good enough. So I set my major to Technical Writing instead, sure I'd end up as an editor somewhere. I was so stupid.
I submitted Clover to Touchstones, and two of my professors cornered me one afternoon, telling me how good the story was, and what the hell was I doing as a technical writing major? So I reconsidered.
What Are Your Touchstones?
I spent a lot of my time in college studying classical literature, learning from the masters. I ended up as the managing editor on the Touchstones staff, and remember reading through all the really bad submissions (not because they weren't a "match" for the magazine - they just weren't well written). I remembered my own bad submissions, and beginning at the bottom. And you know, I still feel like I'm at the bottom seven years out of college, three completed novels later. I'm not copying others anymore, and that's good. I used my touchstones - the excellent works of other writers - as stepping stones to something better for me: my own voice.
My point here today is that as writers, we must learn from something. There is nothing wrong with practicing our craft with bits and pieces of other ideas, voice, style, tone. Everything we read and study becomes a part of us, twists itself into our experience. I will always hold a special place in my heart for Annie Dillard and her style. She will forever flavor my writing, but she hasn't become my writing or my voice.
We can sometimes fall into the trap of believing we are writing well simply because we sound like other writers. I myself often admit to wanting nothing more than to be a copycat of Tolstoy.
Having only developed the tools does not make one a great writer, however. I think to be truly satisfied with our own creations, we writers have to somehow make the connection between the words on the page and our own experiences, our own hearts. To be original, we have to turn to real life.
Tolstoy is one of Davin's most impressive touchstones, but I don't think he runs any danger of copying or plagiarizing Tolstoy, because he understands the importance of a writer's own voice, and what it means to to reach deep into ourselves when we write.
For me, there is a novel in every thought that runs through my mind, but it is only the thoughts and ideas that I grab hold of and make an intrinsic part of me that flower into a full-fledged, beautiful novel. And oh what work it takes, what stepping stones I proudly use to make it mine.
Question For The Day: What are some of your touchstones? Do you think it's a terrible concept to use other writings to help us along? Or do you think it's something no writer can avoid?
Oh, and it's Scott's birthday today. Drop him a note on his blog!
~MDA (aka Glam)