Momus recently spent some time at Click Opera chewing on an idea that really bothers me. He calls it “runner-up-ization,” and it refers to a situation where people or cultures, instead of succeeding at being themselves, rate as runners-up at being someone else. As examples, Momus points to Indian fashion magazines that feature western-looking models and styles more prominently than local ones, and to the novelist Tao Lin, whose distinctive style inspires readers to wish they could write like him.
Runner-up-ization is real and frightening to me, as a relatively inexperienced writer with hopes of contributing something compelling, original or fun to the world. I spend a lot of my time, energy and passion digesting the creative output of people I see as first-place versions of themselves. I try to figure out how they do what they do, and how I can do it, too. When you admire people for their uniqueness, though, emulating them too precisely just misses the point.
And yet, there’s something there that’s worth emulating. Figuring out what lessons my heroes might teach me about myself keeps me up nights. It’s tempting to muddle everything together into a derivative recipe, to strive to be “one part” this guy, or “the next” that guy. That would sure be easier than working out what resonates with me about, for example, Matt Fraction’s writing on Casanova, and how I can use my limited ability to make something of my own that leaves me with that same kind of feeling.
Actually, let’s talk about Casanova for a minute. Fraction ends each issue with a backmatter essay that reveals the swirling mix of music, books, movies and life events that inspired that part of the story. Somehow, he transmuted those raw materials into a narrative that not only has personal significance to him, but also kicks me — an anonymous reader — in some deep-gut spot. I aspire to this. But, to be more than a runner-up Fraction, I have to find my own materials and my own somehow. It would be easy to say that I want to write like a Tao Lin or a Matt Fraction, but what I really want is to write like myself in the way they write like themselves.
I think the most genuine stuff comes from that kid-place, untouched by the zeitgeist, that place where you either like something or you don’t, where something is cool or it isn’t. Sometimes we’re so swayed by the tastes of those we respect, especially when they articulate them in a thought-provoking way, that we ignore their context. What Momus wears might make me smile or give me something new to think about, but it might also be completely incoherent if I try to fit it into my own style. It’s the same way with writing — the process of knowing what to take or leave can be painful and challenging, because other people’s stuff is just so damn good. But out of its context, separated from the original writer’s experiences and inspirations, it can fall flat. The admiration is sincere, but the reproduction isn’t.
When I’m feeling anxious about runner-up-ization, it comforts me to think that Matt Fraction, Tao Lin and Momus all had to get around this problem, too. I don’t know for sure, but I’d be willing to bet they experimented with writing, dressing or singing like someone else before hitting on the styles they’re known for. I’m beginning to realize there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re more than a runner-up when you go beyond mimicry and appropriation and start trusting your own instincts. I’m still learning how to do that, but I hope I’ll manage to spit out some writing I can live with in the process.