Writer’s Log, February 16th: Finding Your Voice

It’s hard to throw a stick in a writing class without hitting someone who’s flummoxed about voice. What is voice, anyway? How do I know if I have one? What if I don’t, and I’ve spent all this time/energy/angst on this writing craft for nothing?

I think the question of voice has become simultaneously far too mysterious and far too infrequently addressed. When many people think of a writer’s voice, they think of some unique, ineffable thing that is difficult to capture but undeniable when encountered. Let’s consider that language for a moment, though. Does it bother anyone else that we tend to speak of voice the same way we talk about a Sasquatch?

Perhaps the trouble lies in trying to develop a definition of voice that can be pinned to a dictionary page and slammed shut. In my experience, voice isn’t so much shifty as shifting; it’s not so much difficult to define as it is resistant to stagnant parameters. Just as we speak differently in real life depending on whether or not we’re talking to a close friend or a loathed work colleague, I think we can fall into many voices that feel at least temporarily fluid. Over time, of course, I think we discover that the voice we use for Griselda in Shipping is less flexible and resonant than the one we use when speaking to a deeply trusted friend, but even so, how we speak to even our most intimate companions can vary depending on the day and the mood. In my experience, I find that weaving together an authorial voice depends both on the project and what aspects of my creativity I’m drawing on to develop that project. In a sense, I choose voice the same way I imagine a painter chooses paints, brushes, and canvas.

Furthermore, I think that our sensibilities around voice can change over time. An authorial voice that might have felt absolutely right for a particular project at a particular time might not be the same voice I’d use to tackle that same project today. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s certainly not a sign that my voice can’t be trusted. It’s simply a sign that voices can evolve depending on how our lives unfold and our sensibilities shift.

So instead of trying to find your voice, I encourage you instead to think instead about what you want to say. What project is tugging at your sleeve right now, and how can you write about it in a way that helps you capture what you find important about it? Try to worry less about being distinctive, and more about being in the service of the work. As always, it’s not about defining yourself as a writer that matters, it’s about doing whatever it takes to free yourself up enough to write.

Art: Katsushika Hokusai, Bouvreuil et Cerisier Pleureur en Fleur

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Writer’s Log, February 1: Chains and Choices

My favorite Dickens work has always been A Christmas Carol. I fell in love with it long before I read any of the novels, when Walter C. Scott appeared on my parents’ black and white TV in all his scruffy, miserable glory. Despite the fact that I had been banned from anything scarier than Wonder Woman because I spooked so easily, and barring the fact that I was being raised in a conservative Jewish household, everything about the story spoke to me: the raw pain, the stubborn adherence to said pain, the vocal and vehement spirits, the terror, the cruelty, the bittersweet joys, the final reckoning and hope. For a kid growing up in the 80s, when it seemed like everyone was bottled up and hairsprayed and armored in neon, this kind of balls-to-the-wall treatment of everyday, fundamental suffering was like tonic.

And despite the fact that it’s been rinsed and repeated ad infinitum, the story never fails to enchant me. I think that’s because we still live in a world where so many of us would rather drag heavy chains of regret behind us than release the hold we have on whatever stubborn patterns we’ve developed over a lifetime. The capacity old woes have to cripple us can really not be understated, and their insidious nature cannot be underestimated.

I still get a thrill, too, when I remember that all I need to do to cast off any number of rusty, weighty chains is to simply release my grip. Even if I can only manage to do so for a moment, the thrill is electrifying, probably because it’s so easy to get unknowingly mired in my own preciously cultivated shit. I’m in particular danger of this during the long, post-holiday winter, when I haven’t yet found my way back to a regular writing schedule and my creativity seems quite content to snooze until spring. It’s so tempting to tell myself terrible stories about what I haven’t done, about what I’ve missed, about the plans I made and failed to meet. I can get my knickers in such a twist that it becomes virtually impossible to sit down with myself in a quiet room and get back to work.

But then I remember that that’s really all I have to do. I don’t actually have to listen to those stories, no matter how persuasive I’ve found them in the past. I just need to loosen my grip on the chains long enough to start writing. And when I remember to do this, the writing comes back unbidden, like those first slips of green emerging from the permafrost of an urban winter. What we don’t know is always there to surprise us, no matter how well we’ve convinced ourselves we’re past surprising. Spring always comes, no matter how cold the winter has been.

Art: Katsushika Hokusai, Tiger in a Snowstorm

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Writer’s Log, January 15th: Passion vs. Productivity

This’ll be a brief one tonight, as my sixteen-year-old son is trying to convince my husband that we need to install solar panels unless we’d rather just be complicit in letting the world to come to a screeching halt in fifteen years; my daughter looks like she swallowed an aging lemon because her homework is getting in the way of her reading (honestly don’t know what to do with that one); and my youngest is ostensibly receiving a trumpet lesson, but is actually – and inexplicably – peppering his music teacher with Irish trivia.

Le sigh.

Yet it’s precisely this sort of night that reminds me why I turned to writing fiction and rearing children so many moons ago. Up until that point, I’d been driven by a sense of productivity. The more I could say I’d accomplished – whether it be a doctoral dissertation or yet another pile of folded laundry – the better I felt. But it was a superficial contentment I was fueling; one that felt less like satisfaction and more like relief at having kept the wolves from the door for one more day. I think that’s because, like so many women of my generation, I’d learned to engage in those activities that were most likely to prove my value to the outside world, rather than trusting those uncertain, nebulous aspects of life that truly lit me up from within.

It’s been hard to wean myself off the sweet, temporary hit of external affirmation. Sometimes, I still slip. But even tonight, when I’m kinda sorta hiding from the children AND my novel, I am, beyond a shadow of a doubt, so much more profoundly satisfied knowing that I set aside the pursuit of professional labels and pats on the back in favor of diving deep into the relatively anonymous world of parenting and creative work. And because children and writing can never be perfected and never fully captured, I know that while they might be temporarily exhausting, anything I give to them only amplifies the kind of mysterious, bottomless wonder that never grows old.

Art: Cueva de las Manos, 7300 BC

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Writer’s Log, January 1: Renewal

Isn’t it odd that we great the new year with resolutions? Faced with the possibility and opportunity of renewal, we meet it with an already hatched plan? And not just any plan; usually one spawned from a Grinch-like session of hyperfocusing on where you fall short and vowing to change the future via some psychologically medieval system of self-shaming, bullheadedness, and pop culture logic. To add icing to the cake, the next step usually involves giving your power away to an expert who promises a solution to the infinitely complex, gloriously unsolvable problem that is you. It’s no wonder so many of us wind up carrying around a little extra weight.

What if, instead of focusing on what hasn’t worked, we focused instead on what has? Instead of resolving to change, what if we simply renewed our commitments to those few, essential things that have always brought us joy? We all have them, though sometimes we wind up so far down other paths we forget our way back to our origin points. What’s worse, sometimes we’ll accidentally find our way back to them and then stop ourselves when that joy and freedom comes bubbling back up to the surface. You’ll know yours when you find it, though. It’s not a quick hit – a piece of chocolate cake, sex with a glamorous stranger, blowing off work – rather, it’s that deeply satisfying recognition that you’re engaged with something that lies on the same frequency of your most essential, unvarnished self, and it usually accompanied by a gentle hum of awareness that artifice, compromise, or self-consciousness have no place here. Perhaps it’s creative work, or caregiving, or simply reconnecting to the power of your body. Or maybe it’s something you’re tempted to dismiss because the judgy part of you that wants prestige and invulnerability and the jealous admiration of your peers is shouting in your ear again with the horrible voice and breath of whatever toxic substance she’s been smoking. No matter what it is, the question remains: If it brings you joy, why are you not letting that be your guide?

Art: Franz Marc, The Fox

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Writer’s Log, December 3rd: Necessary Evils

 

Let’s face it. Even the most thoughtful criticism is painful, whether the feeling is of being mildly stung or outright gutted. I don’t care how evolved or accomplished you are or that you have the emotional skin of a reptile; no one likes to hear that their work isn’t landing well with a reader. Even if that reader is someone you never really liked anyway and who is dead to you now.

I’ve been in this writing game for over two decades, and it still feels like my baby got kicked in the teeth every time I get a less-than-ideal response from a good reader. It’s not unlike the first time someone threw sand at my son at the park. Sure, it was another two-year-old, and my son was in the habit of taking toys and asking questions later, but that didn’t stop the visceral reaction of wanting to TAKE THAT KID OUT. Chock it up to human nature. When we put our hearts out there without protecting them with artifice or inauthenticity, even the smallest bruise can put our fight-or-flight responses into overdrive.

Still, without feedback, we go nowhere. Writing is, ultimately, an act of communication, so the written work can’t truly be finished until it’s read. How, then, to survive the discomfort of getting read? At first, our instincts might tell us there is only one possible option. Licking our wounds in outrage, we will want to hate everyone and everything and go live in a cave. We must wait for this to pass. Because avoiding feedback altogether, no matter how much it stings or has us begging for mercy, is to fail, fundamentally, at believing in ourselves and the writing process. That’s because every single piece of feedback you will receive is valuable, and knowing that is the key to navigating the treacherous terrain that comes with it.

Before you get your panties in a wad, yes, I do understand that sometimes the actual feedback we get can be crappy and otherwise unhelpful. In my experience, few people are actually very skilled at giving feedback, so more often than not, you’ll be on the receiving end of a hot mess of hemming and hawing. But even this feedback is helpful, for two essential reasons. One, it will teach you to stand up for what you believe in, if the feedback you’re receiving is truly unhelpful and has far more to do with what the reader wants for you than what you want for yourself. And two, it will teach you to tell the difference between criticism that raises your hackles because it’s off base, and criticism that raises your hackles because it shines a light on weaknesses you kinda sorta hoped no one else would notice.

If you’re lucky enough, you’ll develop relationships with readers who will offer you the latter, and you must treat them with tremendous gratitude and respect. (At least to their faces. It might take a squidge more time not to shake your sweaty fists in their general direction. S’okay. We’ve all been there.) But over time, you’ll realize that the only way you can fail as a writer is to avoid the growth available to you, even if it comes in the shape of ogres who find your main character “boring and obnoxious” (actual quotation from a family member who read my first novel. Clearly, I’m still not totally over that one.).

Please understand that I am not suggesting you develop a thick skin and get over it. Not even a little. We are writers! We care! We make ourselves vulnerable on purpose, because writing in a meaningful fashion matters, as does putting our hearts out there and reaching beyond our comfort zones and doing all sorts of other things that defy those who insist that toughness is power and self-righteousness is defensible. So please, by all means, lick your wounds. Cry a little. Maybe cry a little more than your partner or writing group or friendly neighborhood mental health professional might advise. Give yourself a little time to be terribly sympathetic with yourself and roll around moaning in self pity, if it helps you in shedding that tired old layer of skin.

So go out there, and share – not because you’re sure what you’ve written is just so amazing that even Harold Bloom’s jaw will drop open when he reads it, or because you wrote it last night and would rather sadistically subject yourself to premature discouragement than maybe read it over a few times yourself — but because your work is worth reading. And because you know that writing is to be shared and developed in communities of invested citizens, not entombed in dusty drawers. Be as brave and compassionate as you already know you are, and maybe, one day, someone will return the favor by presenting you with their new and growing work, and you will have learned to recognize it as the gift it truly is.

 

 

Art: George Braque, Nature Morte

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