[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]
Alright, we’ve covered the basics. The two most fundamental rules for writing: Get Black on White and NO CRITIC. If you follow those rules you’ll pump out lots of raw material without stopping to criticize yourself.
But that’s just the start. What do you write about? What’s worth writing? And how do you keep going? I’ll handle those topic in greater depth later, but I want to talk about something even more basic today.
There’s a lot of advice out there for writers. “Show, don’t tell,” “Write what you know,” etc., etc. Workshops will critique your work to death. Another thing writers can be introduced to is writing like other writers. I’m guilty of this as well. Who doesn’t want to emulate their heroes? You can learn to write like Hemingway or Murakami or Bolano or even Shakespeare.
This brings me to the 3rd Rule of Writing: The Elvis Principle. As usual, I want to illustrate the rule through a story. I first heard the story in Memphis at Sun Studios, a place that has a darn good claim to being the birthplace of rock and roll. It was about Elvis trying to get a recording session with Sam Philips, the owner of Sun. Sam had lots of requests like this and Elvis was just a young truck driver looking to record a birthday song for his mother and hoping to use that as a pretext to set up a meeting with the owner. Marion Keisker, a secretary at Sun who first recorded Elvis, acted as Sam’s gatekeeper, talent scout and accountant. Elvis was pestering Marion to let him have a recording session with Sam, but she just wouldn’t budge. The conversation went something like this.
MARION: Well, honey, I’d love to have you record with Sam, but I just need to more to go on. I mean, what kind of singer are you?
ELVIS: Well, ma’am, I sing all kinds of music. All kinds.
MARION: That’s fine, dear, but who do you sound like?
ELVIS: What do you mean?
MARION: Well, dear. You must sound like someone. Like Perry Como, or Sinatra or somebody?
ELVIS: Lady, I don’t sound like nobody.
And he never did.
After that first meeting, Elvis left the office and Keisker took down his name. Later, Sam was looking for a new singer to lay down a track and Keisker mentioned Elvis. The rest is history.
What’s the point? It’s that nobody can write like you. No one. Only you know how to write you. Emulating others can be useful to start, but if you really want to break through you’ve got to write something new and different. Something distinctly you.
One could argue that Elvis was derivative, that he was just a white guy singing black music. That’s a very salient point and true in a certain respect, but he also poured himself into all his recordings and that charisma is what people keep coming back for.
There are a thousand influences on all of us every day, but we have to act as a filter and collection point of these influences. You meld and absorb them and create something wholly new. No one ever became a great writer (or artist) through slavish imitation of others.
That’s something to remember next time you pick up your pen or boot up your Mac/PC to start writing. How are you going to get yourself down on the page? How will you write like no one else ever has? How will you follow the Elvis Principle?
PS For more on Elvis and Sun Studios, check out Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis.
In a continuing sub-series, I’m mentioning each time viewers from a new country visit the blog. This week we have a great new group that I hope is learning a lot about Elvis:
Welcome to the blog, everybody!