Thursday, August 27, 2009


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.

Davin explains:

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)


  1. I'm often inspired while reading. I don't know if my mind just moves toward a meditative state and makes everything clearer, or if just the absorption of creativity triggers the moment of inspiration.

    Earlier this year I was reading "The Night Villa" by Carol Goodman. Great book, btw. There was one point in the book where she quoted some lines from a poem. Those lines inspired my creativity. I grabbed the handy-dandy pen and paper I keep nearby and began to furiously write down the ideas generated by the lines of the poem. Sorry, can't remember the poem right now.

    So, the touchstone for that idea was the poem.

    And here's a question for you: if there are no longer original ideas, then aren't the ideas from our touchstones just copies of earlier ideas that generate from the earliest beginnings of ideas?

    Sorry, didn't mean to go all philosophical there. : )

    Art - whether paintings, pictures, books, sculpture, whatever - is meant to evoke an emotional response. Isn't creativity an emotional response? Isn't the forming of an idea, and making it brilliant in our own right, just part of the creative process?

    If that theory is correct, then every book we read, every piece of art, every poem, song, whatever, are all touchstones . . . well, at least in my little world!

    Very in-depth and thought provoking post. I don't know how you consistently do it!


  2. I read some accepted material from a magazine once and knew I should but could not copy the writers' styles.

  3. Scott: Excellent comment.

    If there are no longer original ideas, then aren't the ideas from our touchstones just copies of earlier ideas that generate from the earliest beginnings of ideas?

    I believe they are, in a sense, but I also firmly believe that everything we internalize and write from our heart is truly our own. Nobody else could write it that way. Nobody else has our voice. To me, it all feels like a pearl getting bigger and bigger inside the shell - we are all growing and learning from each other.

    Justus: I often find things I'd like to copy, but don't. When I was learning how to write in the very beginning stages, it was harder to resist. Now that I'm settling into my own voice and style, I still pay attention to writing I admire, but I'll never copy.

  4. Another writer once suggested an exercise: copy completely a short story we admire because the act of typing it will help us see the choices the writer made. I tried it but found it too labor intensive to do again. But I do think, like any skill, we need to closely study and learn from a pro without becoming copycats. There's a difference between observing what works and learning how to use that in our own style or in just using it as a template because it's easier that way.
    I don't know if I'm making sense, but I am certainly often inspired by someone else's work into ideas of my own. I think our brains work best when seeing new possibilities.

  5. Tricia: That is an excellent suggestion. I think I did something similar to that in college in a class - but it was geared more toward the technical end of things than the creative. Still, it taught me a lot.

    I think we can learn and internalize things without becoming copycats or plagiarizing. You are making a lot of sense to me, at least. Like you say at the end of your comment, our brains work best when we discover new possibilities, and that often means stumbling across new forms and styles and ideas that open new connections for us to explore.

  6. Lady G, love the beginning of Clover. That just goes to show there are so many authors I would love to read that just aren't out there yet. Your work is better than half the stuff on my Kindle.

  7. T. Anne: Wow, that's quite the compliment! Thank you! I owe it all to Annie Dillard, hah. You should put her on your Kindle, that's for sure.

  8. I may just have to read Annie Dillard, too :). I was moved, just by those few paragraphs--thank you for sharing!

    My biggest touchstone is George R. R. Martin. I would like to make my readers feel as unsafe and nervous reading my fantasy as I am reading Song of Ice & Fire.

    Dan Simmon's HYPERION is another touchstone for me, for character voice and beautiful description. I love them!

  9. I think it's something no writer can avoid.

    I like Scott's idea that everything we absorb becomes a touchstone. I think that's true and the way we react to it is where our originality comes from.

    The beginning of Clover was beautiful it made me well up.

  10. I think I'm getting what you're saying, Michelle. And, your definition of a touchstone--very interesting, by the way--actually fits quite nicely. See, I like Tolstoy. No surprise. But, the great thing is that I have convinced some of my close writing friends to like Tolstoy as well. That's where my touchstone comes into play. I know that if my friends can appreciate Tolstoy over a writer that I don't personally respect as much, then I can get the feedback I want from them with my own writing. In other words, they can say, which they usually do, "This isn't as good as Tolstoy, but it's better than so and so." For me, this is the test if my gold is real. If I can find readers with similar tastes to mine, and if THEY like my writing, then I can trust that I'm moving my own work in the direction that I want to go.

    And, you're right. I'll never be Tolstoy. When it comes right down to it, I don't really want to be. What I want is to master omniscient narration, to be able to create personalities. That's what I admire about Tolstoy. I DON'T want to get into his politics, and the conflicts that intrigue me usually don't involve social class, something that plays heavily in Tolstoy's works. I'm using him as a way to compare myself in some ways, and in other ways, I'm not interested in what he's doing.

  11. Scott, I wanted to jump in on the discussion of your question as well. For the record, I personally believe that there are new ideas out there. I think they're just very rare. I even say there are new stories out there...ones that I haven't found. But, for me, originality can also come in the combination of our skills. For instance, I'm bad at dialog, but good at descriptions. I think I'm good at telling stories from different points of view, but I'm bad at doing research. That's a particular combination that creates an original book, for better or for worse. And, there's the idea that you brought up earlier about brilliance, which I love. Even if everyone has the same idea, not everyone can brilliantly execute it. I strive to be the most brilliantest.

  12. Not exactly to topic, but just wanted to say I LOVE "The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek"

    I read it in college for a Core Class. And the beginning of your story, inspired by it, is beautifully crafted.

  13. Another thoughtful and brilliantly presented post. I think trying to figure out the masters by "copying" in various forms is a necessary step for most people in the arts.

    I love the idea of touchstones (and the gorgeous photo) and will be thinking about it.

    You guys have got to stop making people think!

  14. Thanks for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I definitely use others' works as touchstones, altho my touchstones tend to be more in the children's lit/YA department. When studying picture books, I've retyped book after book in order to analyze them for details such as word count, use of rhythm & repetition, etc. I've also found it really useful to take a fabulous passage of description (I've used passages from works by Avi, R. A. Nelson, and Cassandra Clare) and use it as a model as I practice writing my own descriptions.

    You discuss the process and how it can work so beautifully here!

  15. I believe in order to write, you have to read. Amazed me the people I meet who want to write, or do, that don't read. Reading is how I learn best--and then timed writings. To study someone like Wallace Stegner to help me with structure. Or Dillard or McPhee for landscapes. I adore writers who create characters that feel as though I am standing right next to them.

    However, when I'm writing, I tend not to read a great deal. Perhaps because then, my words come out like whomever I'm reading. Been reading too much lately. Not enough writing. Summer.

  16. Rebecca: Oh, wow unsafe and nervous! That can be great for suspense and in fantasy! I'm so glad you have some great touchstones. It helps out so much.

    Alexa: Good observation there about how we react to the touchstone is where our originality comes from. I agree with that. I remember when I read Clover at a reading. I think I made several moms cry! It was embarrassing, but helped me know I'd accomplished something.

    Davin: I can understand what you mean about wanting to emulate certain aspects of Tolstoy. There's the philosophies of Annie Dillard that I'm not sure I want to adopt into my writing.

    I always love to find readers who love the same authors I do. It can help out so much in many aspects.

    Lost Wanderer: So glad to find a fellow Dillard fan! She definitely touches me in no way any other writer can. Thank you!

    Cheryl: Thank you for your kind comment. I can't imagine what it would be like to write children's work. I've never attempted it, so I would need some great touchstones if I were to ever try! My first novel is YA, but started out as adult. It's still awaiting the transformation from adult to YA. It's a long story, hah.

    Midlife: You have no idea how much like you I am! I go in spurts with reading - where I don't write at all. I can't read much of anything while I'm working on my novels. And yes, I have my bookshelf separated by types of writing that inspires me for different things in the process. Fun stuff!

  17. Wow, that snippet you put up was unbelievable.

    And I think that it's only natural we imitate the style of authors we like. That's how we learn, after all. Cheating or not, I guess.

  18. *unbelievably good. I mean, your writing is incredible. :-)

  19. Nice! I don't copy anyone else's style. I've just never thought of it. If someone doesn't like my style and wants me to conform, I guess I won't be published with them. Your style is your own, so own it. ;)

    Lynnette Labelle

  20. I have a huge stack of novels near my desk, and when I get stuck and my head spirals, I pull one and read a passage. I find my own voice once again inside the context of the obvious.

  21. Wow! That was so well put (and beautiful).
    I can't think of any one touchstone, there are so many. I have so much to learn.

  22. Icy Roses: I understood what you meant by unbelievable, and thanks!

    Lynette: Yes, but do you have favorite authors that you admire? Don't you think you've acquired at least some aspects of things that you have read growing up, and even now? If not, that's great that you can stick to your own style so well!

    Aimee: That's something I do as well. I don't have them next to my bed, but their on my shelf for easy access, and I grab for them often when I get stuck.

    Carolyn: Yes, I think a lot of us have a lot to learn, including me. It's so great to converse with each other and see how others have progressed.

  23. I'm inspired by so much of my reading: quirky characters, unexpected humor, a description that takes my breath away, real dialog. Absorbing that excellence and making it my own is one way I grow as a writer.

  24. MG: Well put! I feel the same way about "absorbing" things. It's almost like it doesn't require too much effort - it just sort of goes into the subconscious...

  25. Wow! That was beautifully put. I loved the excerpt from your short story. I feel like I've read that. Have I? I'm going to have to read it again sometime. It's well wrought at any rate. I love that picture too.

    In a lot of ways I'm afraid of copying. I feel like it will make me less unique, but sometimes I think it can help us be more understood and accepted too. I guess it's a fine line.

  26. Lois: Yes, I think it's a very fine line, and mostly for me it's about internalizing something more than copying, if that makes sense. Yes, I think I've sent you Clover before. If you'd like to read it again and you don't have it, I can send it over. It's really short. :D

  27. I am of two minds when it comes to letting myself be influenced (a fancy way of saying "stealing from other writers"). On the one hand, when I'm working on something of my own, I will not let myself read current writers and only read the classics. No, I don't know why.

    On the other hand, everything I know about writing, I learned from other writers. How to craft a scene, how to write dialog, how to show character emotions, how to write action, how to describe a landscape or talk about the color of the sky or the smell of a woman's hair...all of this I learned from writers I admire. The solution to every technical writing problem I've had has come from reading. I don't know what portion of my own work is original, nor do I so much care as long as what I write, to me, reads like real writing.

    Touchstones: William Shakespeare, Antonia Byatt, Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCulloch, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevski, Franz Kafka, J.D. Salinger, Geraldine Brooks, Jane Austen, Ursula Le Guin and Mikhail Bulgakov. Each of them has shown me the way.

  28. Scott: Many of your touchstones are mine. I often wonder how much of my writing is mine, but once I've internalized all those touchstones, I suppose what I've learned comes out unique.


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