The Born Freelancer on The Creative Journey

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.  


I’ve discovered a site which you might enjoy. It’s called I Write Like and purports to tell you whose style your writing most resembles. While I cannot vouch for its veracity, it is a fun and occasionally flattering reminder that we are all influenced by countless others who have toiled in the trenches we toil in today. And who knows, perhaps one day some of us might even influence a few future novices too.

One of the hardest but most rewarding challenges for working scribes is to “find” ourselves editorially and develop a genuine “voice”- that is, a style as well as a point of view that seem uniquely ours and that enable us to make a living while engaging our respective communities.

I would posit that this creative journey can be especially problematic for freelancers. We must create our own unique road maps. Nine to fivers usually get a distinctive road map explicitly or implicitly inherent in their company’s culture: do it like this, don’t do it like that. Freelancers must be more self-actualizing; gradually refining and realigning our strengths and weaknesses as we go along. It can be an exciting adventure; it can also be fraught with road blocks, rejection or worse.

I thought it might be useful today to reflect upon how the creative journey unfolds.


Phase one: acquisition

For many of us, it began long before we knew we were on such a life journey. During our younger and more impressionable years we were creative sponges: soaking up ideas, styles, and content. Along the way we discovered what we liked and didn’t like, what had relevance to us and what connected us to our fellow human beings.

Somewhere along the line the seed was implanted that would grow into making us want to do more. We wanted to make some kind of sense of it all for ourselves through the process of reinterpreting it to others.

The turning point may be simply an early opportunity to do so. For others, perhaps it was a chance to see “behind the scenes”. I can still recall as a very young child visiting a local TV station and being fascinated by what I saw. While most of my friends thought it was cool to meet the on air talent, I was much more engaged with the people and activity going on behind and beyond the television screen. Later visits to local radio stations reinforced the idea that was slowly taking shape in my young mind. These were people just like me, only older. They weren’t from Mars. This was something I wanted to do too. How would I grow up to become someone who could do it?


Phase two: imitation

Those of us compelled to write or to somehow express ourselves usually began by simple imitation. Whether we realize it or not, our earliest attempts at self-expression will almost always be entirely derivative. This is not a bad thing (for a little while anyway) as long as we recognize it and strive to build upon it and work past it.

Who said, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”? (Colton, actually, I just looked it up.) This is so true. Who would bother to imitate someone they didn’t like? I was often told as a newbie to find established writers I liked and try to write like them. It is still a worthwhile exercise. The point is not to end up copying them but to put yourself in their literary shoes and (using their style as a road map) see if you can find your own way to a known and desirable destination. Learning how to write for an established show, or like an established writer, means you are aiming high while learning your craft. Why waste your time aiming low? You are learning how to do what it is you want to do but with a road map created by another whose vision you trust and hope one day to surpass. It doesn’t matter that you may not get to their destination. It’s not yours to get to anyway. What is yours is the journey you are undertaking. Your destination will emerge later.

When I was back in school one of my favourite teachers, a creative writing instructor, insisted we study famous writers so we would not set out in our “little row boats” without “some borrowed oars”. At the time I didn’t see the point. I didn’t want to write like someone else, I wanted to write like me! Ah, but there was the problem. When I set out to write like me I found out very quickly that I wasn’t so sure what I should sound like in print. I thought I knew my own voice in real life but when I sat down to actually do the deed in print I came up short. I began to realize that investigating the style and voices of others I admired would give me directional templates from which to work. My subconscious could then plunge ahead and sort out who I was (editorially and creatively).


Phase three: synthesis

I believe that a lot of the actual work of finding our creative voice plays out on a subconscious level while we are actively absorbing and reinterpreting influences around us.

And so most of us spend a few years training hard at our craft, writing and creating whatever we can for whatever venues are available. Sometimes we got feedback, often not; usually very little reward or encouragement. But by constantly working, those influences we were imitating got processed through filters in our brain. Slowly (and in some cases dramatically) our work stopped being identifiably imitative and began to evolve into something as yet unidentifiable but different. And if you were good, it showed promise.

This is usually the phase in our creative journey when some of us began to work for pay. If you are lucky, you find a more experienced mentor. Sometimes your mentor may disguise themselves as a competitor. You may not always realize that they are your mentor. They may not always realize it either! I have worked for organizations without any official mentorship program. In such places I was just thrown in at the deep end. If I was lucky I would get to shadow someone really good. Even the good ones worried for their jobs could not help but lay down a few bread crumbs to help me find my own way.

So, step by step, if you are any good and wish to better yourself you strive to reach a point where you are no longer merely imitating. You are now synthesizing the influences in your life by turning them upside down and all around inside you (and adding something new) until what comes out seems exactly unlike any of the elements that went in. You are finally on the road to originating your own authentic voice.


Phase four: origination

Parallel to developing your craft “chops” you have also lived a life. Finding your genuine voice, I would posit, depends not only upon refining technical skills and creatively managing ideas but also upon life experience lived beyond your craft. For some of us it takes a long time. For others, less so. It is the ultimate blending of those components – skill, creativity and life experience that result in the ability to foster your own editorial voice and express yourself uniquely and originally. You will have become the originator of your own style, thoughts and points of view when you have mastered this equation.

For many of us the reality is a lifetime learning curve that never seems to end. Every day is a new experience (especially true for freelancers) and every day we add to the sum of our knowledge and skills. It also means every day learning to discard the arcane or unnecessary when such prove counter-productive. The struggle is never, ever easy. The goal post always seems to move mysteriously forward. But by recognizing how we got here and which progenitors led us, we can more accurately understand what we are doing today and how we may try to do things differently tomorrow.


The takeaway

When you are a newbie you may resent it when someone tells you that you write like someone else. It can feel deeply wounding! You are so unsure of yourself that it feels like they have declared you a fraud. By the time you become an originator of your own voice, if someone tells you that you remind them of some else, paradoxically it can feel like a great compliment. Every authentic voice carries with it the enriching if forgotten echoes of its own past.

To be even a small part of the vast continuum of our collective profession is a privilege hard earned. But I know I did not get here by myself. I cherish the memory of those who have educated me whether they knew it or not. They continue to inspire me every day of my working life. Acknowledging them allows me see more clearly my own creative journey.


In case you wondered, I Write Like tells me that this post’s style reminded it of H. P. Lovecraft. Hmmmm. Does it mean I will only achieve fame posthumously?

Just for fun, why not try I Write Like yourself. Do you agree or disagree with it? Let us know in the comments section below.


Posted on March 28, 2014 at 9:05 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

Leave a Reply