Image Credit: Albert Anker
It was the rhythms of words that I loved most as a child. Undeniably delighted at the prospect of having someone else read to me, I would at times forget to listen to the story altogether, paying sole attention instead to the rhythm that the words made and the sentences as they flowed into one another. I would muse with wonderment at the enormous difference that breaks and unintentional pauses could make in a sentence or at the clever word choices being used, and could spend whole afternoons for days afterwards recreating the stories I’d heard. I was fascinated by the intricacies I discovered in the heroes of the stories I loved most—their morals and struggles, and the apparent perfection in everything they said—and often longed to see these characteristics as my own as I played with my own interpretations of the things I’d heard.
As a young child, I would often imagine myself the heroine of a book or story I had just heard or read. Wrapping a scarf around my waist and brandishing my wooden sword, I at once became the brave, tomboyish maiden, up alone against nameless beasts and enormous rushing rivers. Other times, donning my hat and loading my rubber-band pistol, I transformed myself into that noble and daring desperado, riding backwards and forwards across the living room floor, mounted on my trusty stick. Reaching the end of my plot was never a goal of mine in these games, nor did developing them into an interesting story with a dramatic climax ever seem to hold any interest for me. It was the wording that intrigued me most, repeating the same phrase, line, or scene over and over again, often for an hour at a time as I rearranged pauses and replaced words with their synonyms, until I had gotten them to sound just right, like the characters in books had them.
In time, however, these dramatic plays of mine, in which a lovely lady struggled desperately against the rushing rapids of some deadly river often five times over, morphed themselves into long monologues. Often for an hour at a time I would loiter around a room, meandering circles round and about, imagining the exact way I planned to tell a friend about yesterday’s day or tomorrow’s plan. As if by tradition from the afternoons I spent playing, I would repeat the same part of my monologue again and again, caring only for the way it sounded as I toyed with the words and how they flowed together. Just as before, I would try to perfect its rhythm, eventually creating it into something as real to me as those characters had been in the stories I loved so much.
At the age of fourteen, my mother brought me a gift she had found—an old copy of Judith Martin’s Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. We deemed it a wonderful book as we sat huddled together on a crowded train—one which afforded us many a delightful moment as we suppressed the urge to comically act out the strange advice offered therein. It was rare, I remember thinking, that such a large book be filled with such seemingly frivolous and inconsequential yet lovely advice on things which nowadays rarely come into question, and then again I would turn with curiosity to learn the correct way to dispose of one’s olive pit. And yet, it was not so much the quaint advice that I loved or the unusual topics, but rather the rolling, carefree language, the archaic words, and the elegant sentences. It was like water, I remember thinking as I whispered the text to myself, each sentence trickling into the next, beautifully, quietly, musically.
In my days before Miss Manners, my writing style had been one of practicality. No unnecessary words, unusual or elegant though they might have been, were ever included. I took pride at that time in writing emails that were short and to the point, rarely bothering to fancy them up after they were written. Never eloquent, my messages more often took on an abrupt and unrevised tone, scattered here and there with repeated words and run-on sentences: rough compositions far from the complexity of my monologues. Keenly aware of this, I developed an admiration for the way Martin wrote. Her style seemed glad, humorous, and respectable. It wasn’t laden with similes and descriptions, as Willa Cather’s writing was, nor was it filled with the heavy peppering of endless descriptions and explanations that characterized Jules Verne’s books. It was simple, yet intriguing; subtle, yet distinct. Her word choices were vibrant and life-like, far from my own predictable and lackluster phrases, while her sentences danced off one another in a way that my staccato attempts never could.
My monologues, famous here for their described longevity, at this time began to give way to imaginings of Miss Manners. At free moments throughout the day I could often be found pacing dreamily about a room as I mentally rearranged some email I planned to write as I imagined Miss Manners would. Nights in bed were spent reading further into the book with the mint green jacket, constructing the paragraphs I dreamed of writing in her words. Replacing the commonplace adjectives with unusual and generally unknown ones, searching for the archaic forms of simple nouns and verbs, adding small flourishes to each sentence – I adopted all of these as my own in my undertaking to imitate my beloved Miss Manners.
My essays and emails at this time became far less formal and more candid as I tried, often with the large green book propped up in front of me, to emulate the effortless and carefree manner with which I wholeheartedly believed Miss Manners, however real or unreal, actually spoke. I admired this writing style and dreamed for long periods of time only of that day that I would be able to easily and with little forethought write as Martin did. This aspiration of mine came with a toll, however, and a heavy one: I began to lose my own confidence and voice, however rudimentary they might have been.
It wasn’t so much that I feared failure at emulating my beloved Miss Manners but that I feared having nothing to return to should I fail. Pinned between what I knew to be natural and what I wanted natural to be, I would frequently find myself rewriting my sentences up to ten times, moving commas around like one would flip the pages of a book, inserting dashes and then removing them again, and deliberating for hours on end pithy ways of saying the most ordinary of things. And all of this for the one reason that I had unintentionally but successfully killed any shred of trust that I had formerly had in my own writing style by placing all of my confidence in the hands of someone I would never meet.
Frightened by seeing a recognizable form of imitation appearing on the paper before me, yet still admiring Martin’s writing, I would find myself oscillating from day to day, on one writing as Miss Manners, on the other as myself, and on the third day I would combine the two and try to create a sort of half-breed, neither my own nor Judith Martin’s but somewhere at an imagined halfway point. Never, however, could I find that fine, dividing line, and as time progressed, I began to fear that by deferring continuously to her style, I had systematically gotten rid of any trace of my own.
It was, in essence, a battle of fear and desire. Although attempting to convince myself again and again that being influenced by something that I admired was nothing to be deliberately eschewed, I felt uneasy at times by the thought that my original fear had at last been realized, and that I had indeed become an imitator with no style of my own. And while there was little else I wanted more than for my own writing to sound as rhythmic and musical as the lines in my plays used to and as I knew Martin’s did, I felt trapped at times by the idea that the words I saw appearing on the page in front of me were not really my own. I began to unconsciously avoid writing when it was not required, with poetry, short stories, and journal entries falling to the wayside as I continued to doubt the imitative writing style I believed I had developed.
Affairs did not change until some time afterward when I was assigned to read William Strunk and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style. Designed as preparation for an upcoming class, I did not expect to find any long-lasting advice amongst the pages filled with rules on commas, apostrophes, and hyphens. Yet within this small, almost palm-sized rule book, lay the advice which at last dismissed the fears I had been shying away from for so long.
The use of language begins with imitation. The infant imitates the sounds made by its parents; the child imitates first the spoken language, then the stuff of books. The imitative life continues long after the writer is secure in the language for it is almost impossible to avoid imitating what one admires. Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead to admire what is good. Then when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating.
Had I known of the existence of this quote, perhaps I would not have had such uncertainty in my own writing, for here, I felt as I read it, was the confirmation that I needed. Here, in a book filled with such beautifully flowing words as I had so blatantly admired elsewhere, was a piece of advice which redirected all the insecurities I felt on my recognition of someone else’s style. In a rhythm that made me read it over and over again, it abolished a fear that had governed my every phrase, sentence, and paragraph and which had bound me to uncertainty so long. Though to this day I play with my words and perfect them, I no longer write with the big green book propped up in front of me as once I used to. I write now from memory—a memory of what I know is good.
Leigh Stern is a 16 year-old high school student growing up homeschooled in NYC. Leigh is an admirer of the classics, has been involved in a teen-run theater troupe for many years, and has recently been exploring the realm of historical costuming while volunteering at Historic Richmond Town. While Leigh has never been published before, she has always enjoyed writing at home and wishes to wholeheartedly thank the editing team at Entropy for allowing her this very exciting opportunity.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.