An Evolutionary Footnote
By Justin Jee
That whole madness of writing in the voice of another author is tied in a very deep sense to the concept of evolution itself. In evolution, you don’t start with a picture of an animal with two eyes and blonde hair, drawing pictures of spaceships on blue paper. You start with some molecules and some radiation, and then eons upon eons pass. At the end of it, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get an animal with two eyes, blonde hair, and pictures of spaceships. In fact it’s almost certain whatever you get won’t be that exactly, but at least maybe you’ll get some kind of life with complex macromolecules, maybe some kind of multicellularity, maybe cells that communicate via electrical signals, maybe something that can even store a mental image of its own surroundings, maybe even something that can imagine a means of transportation to other planets.
It’s like that with writing in a particular voice. You start with nouns and verbs of a certain culture, and then they fester in there, in that primordial soup in your skull, and eventually some nouns and verbs leak out in some sort of order. You get sentences and paragraphs. And maybe you go back and revise them, and they become coherent, and you revise some more, and they even become interesting to other people.1
But here’s the thing. That order of nouns and verbs is going to be completely unlike the order of nouns and verbs that some other human would have produced. The idea that you can start with a passage from David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More and try to replicate its exact tone is crazy. You probably can’t even replicate your own voice from one year to the next.
Imitation of another’s voice might be accomplished to some extent through careful study of his or her work. In the same way that you might pick up an accent or regional phrases while traveling to different parts of the country, it is possible to incorporate elements of a particular writing style into one’s own sentences and paragraphs.2 For example, I can start this sentence with a not-entirely-necessary phrase like “for example,” to make it feel more conversational. I can address you directly, which also makes the tone more conversational, although I will also go through the trouble of cleaning this paragraph of adverbs, something I wouldn’t do in conversation but can do now because I know that adverbs turn some readers away, probabilistically speaking, and because the whole conversation is really an illusion. I’m not really talking to you, you’re reading this, and so I may as well go through the trouble of taking out the “um” and “definitely” clauses that would sneak into my speech, but which aren’t fun to read.
But at the end of the day, David Foster Wallace is still unique. I could never be David Foster Wallace. I will never really be able to capture his voice, despite all the footnotes and clauses and other structural techniques I adapt. This isn’t necessarily bad. After all, mutation is part of evolution, too. And if you miss the original David Foster Wallace, the good news is that his writing itself is probably not going extinct any time soon.
1You might have figured out by this point that this piece itself is a product of the evolutionary process in my head. This is true, although the selective pressure is very weak, because it is early in the morning and there is a deadline coming up.
2Such as non-essential footnotes.
Justin Jee is a resident in Internal Medicine at Columbia.