Michael Lydon, in an entertaining essay for Visual Thesaurus, takes on the elusive question of how a personal writing style develops. Writing styles were something I used to take as they came, part of the background. Some were more old-fashioned, but beyond that, I didn’t think about them. Not until I read the entire two-inch thick volume of John Cheever’s short stories did I think about how a style might be something a writer could strive for. When I turned the last page, I was so marinated in Cheever’s deceptively simple way of putting words together, his choice of subjects, and the kinds of characters who peopled his stories, I felt as if I could sit down and dash one off myself. Of course I couldn’t. That writing style was Cheever’s alone.
Lydon’s essay takes the experience of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse as his model, and how Wodehouse created “a comic world centered on the quintessential featherbrain Bertie Wooster, his unflappable manservant Jeeves,” and the memorable friends and relatives in the Wooster orbit. Over six decades, Wodehouse produced dozens of best-selling novels and stories about Jeeves and Wooster. And they’ve been adapted for television, movies, and the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, By Jeeves (title song).
Authors can certainly claim literary success when one of their characters enters the language as the only descriptor needed for a particular type of person, a Fagin or a Portnoy. “Jeeves” remains the archetype of the unflappable, ready-for-any-unlikely-eventuality manservant. And Jeeves and Wooster are an instantly recognizable duo, brought to life in Wodehouse’s lively stories.
How is such a distinctive voice and style developed? Distinctive, but not too constraining? Comfortably familiar, but not tiresome? Lydon suggests the answer can be found in Enter Jeeves, a 15-story collection published in 1997 (Dover) that “opens a crystal clear window on Wodehouse’s work method which may be fairly summed up in four words: unremitting trial and error.” The stories trace a stumbling path in the development of Bertie’s eventual world view and the complex relationship the two men settle into. With each story, Wodehouse’s prose became “sharper, more succinct, and—there’s no other word for it—more Wodehouse-ian.”
The key to making one’s own prose as inimitable as that of Wodehouse or Cheever or any other admired writer is to imitate—not the style—but the work method. Lydon advises writers to “keep honing, polishing, revising, rejecting, and rewriting” until they begin to approach what they want to say, then do it some more. Lather, rinse, repeat.