It is well-recognised that the writers who stand apart and get noticed are the ones who have their own voice. Imitating another writer’s style shows immaturity as an author or poet. That’s not to say you should not be inspired by those who you look up to; on the contrary, appreciating and assimilating elements of style from admired writers is how every writer begins to develop their own voice. There is a difference, however, between absorbing aspects and outright appropriating another writer’s style.
Taking ideas, stylistic elements, or quirks from other writers or artists is entirely acceptable. According to Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso reportedly said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Although the veracity of this quote has been disputed, even if Picasso did say it, he himself stole it from T.S. Eliot.
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism
Eliot clearly explains that in order to successfully steal, writers need to change and evolve that which they have stolen into something new, and ideally greater than the sum of its parts. Otherwise it is at best a pastiche and at worst a faded carbon-copy.
If, then, writers are to write in their own voice, then writers should give live readings in their own voices also. After all, the same rule applies: Good performers copy, great performers steal. It is how they steal that will come to define them.
Along with performing extensively myself, I have seen many authors read extracts of their books, countless writers read short stories or recite tales from memory, hundreds of poets performing their words with or without paper before them, and the ones that stand out in my memory out of all of them are those who performed with their own voices. Unlike writing, performing is about honesty, and reading before an audience is most definitely a performance. It is the performer sharing their soul with the audience—otherwise there is nothing to connect to. It is the performer with whom the audience shares empathy.
In this class I will be addressing three stages of reading your writing to a live audience: preparing, practising, and performing. Each lesson will contain an assignment, and I urge you to take them seriously and invest in them wholeheartedly.
The one place artists forget to steal from is themselves. You have more to mine internally than you could ever borrow from elsewhere. I have written this Reading Live class to help you dig out the performer within yourself, either to help you get on stage for the first time, or to assist you in improving your performance significantly.
Remember, your audience will not have come to see a tribute act. They will be there to see you. Give them a show.
Computers keep the courts active, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April 1988
Robin Kirk, Inspiration vs. Cultural Appropriation, Zora, 9 August 2019
T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism
Jenn Stephenson, Applying Cognitive Science to Performance, Upsurges of the Real: A Performance Research Blog, 13 July 2012