Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Writing Under the Influence . . . of a Favorite Author

I've been enjoying an old book titled Through Charley's Door, written by a mid-twentieth-century author named Emily Kimbrough. This out-of-print book is an amusing memoir of Kimbrough's fresh-faced career in the 1920s as a copywriter for Chicago's Marshall Field department store. I began reading the book for research for my own work-in-progress, but quickly found myself laughing out loud at some of her descriptions and her winsome way of phrasing things. As one example, book lovers will appreciate her description of the store's book buyer:

"To book salesmen, she was a combination of Simon Legree and Mary Pickford. The people in her own section adored her, respected her, and were scared to a pulp of her. She maintained her absolute sovereignty over publishers by the artful device of selling more of their books than any other retailer even approached. . . . If Mrs. Hahner liked a book she made it a bestseller. Carl Sandburg's The Prairie Years was published in 1926. It was a beautiful book, but it cost $10 [ed. a lot of money in 1926] and its author had not then a following comparable to Zane Grey's. Mrs. Hahner read an advance copy of The Prairie Years, clasped it passionately to her bosom, and placed an initial order for one thousand copies, to the hysterical astonishment of the publishers. . . . As quickly as the publishers had recovered their powers of articulation, the little orders were instantly stepped up proportionately to Marshall Field's, and Mr. Sandburg soared to the financial stratum sparsely populated by Zane Grey and a few other writing inhabitants."  (Through Charley's Door, pp. 191-192).

My point in this post is not so much to promote Emily Kimbrough (although I do recommend her books highly, and the pearls aren't bad either), but to tell you how I've adopted her as a sort of muse on my current WIP. At least on this project, I want to write like Emily Kimbrough! I start every writing session by read a chapter of Through Charley's Door to immerse myself in her voice. I don't slavishly copy her words or phrases (that would be plagiarism), nor am I trying to be a clone. I still want to maintain my own unique voice, but I try to absorb the spirit of her writing and apply it to my own. For example, when stuck for a description, I ask myself, "How would Emily describe this place or this person?" (Yes, we're on a first-name basis.) I try to see the world through her eyes. If someday someone reads my story and says to me, "You write just like Emily Kimbrough," I will consider that a high compliment.

Later on, I might be working on a different project that calls for a different tone, and I will have to choose a different muse to inspire me. But for now, even though Miss Kimbrough died in 1989, she is still "mentoring" me through her books.

Who is your muse? If someone were to say of your writing, "This piece sounds a lot like _________ wrote it," what name would you insert in the blank? Hemingway? Fitzgerald? J. K. Rowling? Consider beginning your writing sessions by reading a few pages of a favorite author's work, until you're steeped in his or her voice. Then write the piece that only you can write.


Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

How interesting & fun this post is. I always like learning about about female authors , and look forward to reading something by Emily Kimbrough. Also like the idea of choosing a 'sort of muse' for a particular/current writing project

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

Her most well-know work is "Our Hearts Were Young and Gay," cowritten with her pal Cornelia Otis Skinner, about their trip to Europe right after college. It was made into a movie in the 1950s. (Naturally, it's the old sense of "gay," taken from the song lyric, "The last time I saw Paris, her heart was young and gay... No matter how they change her, I'll remember her that way." Everybody knows that song, right? ;-) If not, here's a nice version:

elizabethbrinton said...

In terms of the fill in the blank challenge, my muse, and heroine has remained constant. Lucy Maude Montgomery still tops my charts and every time I pick up a well read volume, it is like a visit with an old friend.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I love LMM, Liz! Have you read The Blue Castle? One of her less-known works, and probably my favorite.