Who Do You Want Me to Be?

by Tom Swift

I’m grateful that I can write in any style. Well, maybe not any style. But most styles. A lot of styles.

I cut my teeth as a writer in newspapers. So I can write journalism. Whether the standard inverted pyramid — just the facts, Jack — or as the house organ (editorials). Columns were fun. (I always wanted to be a columnist.) And features were maybe my favorite.

In later adulthood I have gone back to school. And then gone back to school again. (Someday maybe I’ll be smart enough to stop going to school. Don’t count on it.) So I know academic style. I perfected the personal response paper. Term papers? Puh-leez. Word caps — rather than word counts — were made for discursive schmucks like me. I also wrote my share of theses (plural).

One of my degrees is in creative writing — I took a creative nonfiction tract but some of my best teachers and favorite courses were in fiction — so I guess you could say I have some literary chops. Though I have too much respect for people who spend their writing lives making fine art from words to suggest I can rip off works in the same way they do. No.

My only book is a biography and they gave that book an award. So there’s that style, too.

In the professional arena, when you have non-writing jobs but happen to be a writer, you are often assigned tasks that involve putting words together. I can write a letter on behalf of the company — whether we wish to sincerely apologize or send you the important information you requested.

Copywriting. Press releases. I once kept up a daily blog writing as a bird for a bookstore. Who here’s got that one on their writing resume?

Now I began this post expressing my gratitude for my writing dexterity. And it’s true — I am grateful. I have been given great opportunities to try out different styles and try to reach different audiences. Oh, I just thought of another: I have even educated under-served populations through printed pages, as I once had a staff job at an educational publishing company. I wrote and edited booklets that aimed to teach life skills. (I joke that I have written in all sub-genres of nonfiction save for power tool manuals.)

In truth, too, I wonder if my ambidextrousness is a byproduct of an absence of Self. Maybe I can write in so many styles — using so many different voices — not because of enviable skills so much as because the center isn’t (or at least wasn’t in my formative years as a writer) stable.

Maybe I imitate because I am, well, an imitator.

An actor might say something similar, I suppose.

In the end, I have come to appreciate this ability — I rewrote an entire thesis in a whole new style after one advisor retired mid-stream and the new advisor was more by-the-book; I’ll also never forget when the editor of the publishing company read a rewrite of one of my booklets and looked at me and said, “I couldn’t do that” — meaning, he couldn’t write the same material in two wholly different voices and styles — as there is an upside to being able to speak in different voices to different audiences.

The downside: I do have some jealousy for those of more limited range — very possibly they get more meaningful work done. Certainly, they spend less time looking at the menu of writing styles than I do.

Freedom can be restricting.

I do best when I’m boxed in — when you tell me who you want me to be.