Mirror Mirror

Originality is the key to success.

This is the notion on which writing instructors, coaches and almost all writers agree. In order to succeed, in order for your writing to catch the attention of your readers as well as that of an agent, editor or publisher, you have to be as original as you can possibly be. And that if you can tell a story as it appears to you and say precisely what you think of any given situation or character you will without a doubt have a piece of work which is original. In the words of Edith Wharton:

“As a matter of fact, there are only two essential rules: one, that the novelist should deal only with what is within his reach, literally or figuratively, and the other that the value of a subject depends almost wholly on what the author sees in it, and how deeply he is able to see into it.”

John Dos Passos uses the ‘camera eye’ in his books to describe or to show the readers the change in the setting, the shifts and transitions in the different scenes. We writers like to believe that we are always at work. If we are not actually writing, we are thinking about what we are going to write. We have a ‘camera eye’ and we are always observing our surroundings, looking around and noticing every single thing, even if we are not taking notes at the time. But Dorothea Brande takes us a step further and recommends we turn ourselves into the topic of our observation. Here’s an exercise she suggests we practice doing:

“Think how you might have looked if you could follow yourself all day long from a little height. Use the fiction maker’s eye on yourself- how you appear in and out of houses, up streets and into stores, and back home at the end of the day. Take an episode of the day before; see yourself going up to it and coming away from it. What if you knew nothing about yourself, what could be gathered of you, your character, your background, your purpose just there at just that minute?”

I have never been given such advice or such an exercise to consider in my creative writing courses and workshops. Sure I was told to always observe and take notes if possible, but the object of my observation had always been my surroundings and the people and situations around me. And in the words of Henry James:
“Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.”

And now when I go down memory lane with this exercise in mind, I am surprised to discover things about myself and situations I have been involved in that I was not aware of before. I see things, I feel things that I had previously missed or that I had considered differently. And when I sit down to write about these past incidents, my approach is totally different. As Agnes Mure Mackenzie said:

“Your loving and my loving, your anger and my anger, are sufficiently alike for us to call them by the same names: but in our experience and in that of any two people in the world, they will never be quite completely identical.”


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