I wish I could use this phrase more often. Actually, I do, when I’m alone and talking to myself. Which is fairly often. How else do you think I became a writer?
But I wish I could encourage other to use it, too, because I find it to be one of the most useful pieces of writing advice out there. All too often, I think people lose their way as writers because they’re not watching their language. Either they’re too busy watching someone else’s language – a writer they admire and wish to emulate; an old English teacher who drilled stifling vocabulary lessons into their heads on perfectly good Friday mornings – or they’re just not paying attention to their own. As a result, they wind up allowing voices that belong to others take over their work. And while many people can write passably without their own voices at the helm, there’s a big difference between captaining your own ship and just going along for the ride.
In other words, when we don’t watch our language, we jeopardize the potential breadth and depth of what we might have to say. Yet so few people seem to realize that they have a right to write in a voice that feels natural to them. For example, I can’t tell you how many freshman compositions I’ve seen that are shot through with multisyllabic obfuscations. (Yes, that’s as bad as it sounds. It should probably be considered for entry into the DSM). Or worse yet, essays that are hesitant and bland, clearly written by someone whose personal expression has been beaten into submission.
They even have a hard time believing me when I tell them that every halfway intelligent human being has within her a language that can truly speak to her experiences and way of seeing the world. That each of us has a language that only we hear and speak; the language our loved ones use when speaking to us; the language we use to tell the truth; the language we use to rationalize our most desperate lies. It’s also the language we hear on the streets we frequent, the turns of phrases and diction and pacing and word choice that lets us know we’re home, or at least somewhere familiar.
So how do you know if you’ve found your own language? Well, if you’re just starting out or need a refresher, as so many of us usually do, you can ask yourself some key questions. Are you worrying more about how people will read your work than what you most want to say? Are you writing in fits and starts, getting halfway through sentences only to delete them in hostile acts of keyboard aggression? Are you using words that you think make you look smart, or words that have been on your tongue and in your heart?
This evaluation process is hard, but it’s more rewarding than you’d ever imagine. Because it’s the gateway to your best writing, the kind of writing that only you can generate. Don’t get me wrong – your language will not be entirely unique, but it will have a certain essence, a certain energy that comes from someone who trusts that her life matters. This is far more complex and nuanced than where you’re from, or how you were educated (or miseducated), though those things do come into play. For example, I grew up just outside of Boston, but it would be a real stretch for me to attempt a Southie accent, in person or on the page. But I also grew up listening to more than my fair share of recorded stories – my dad loved radio; my mother folk singers – so I internalized the music of a sung story at an early age.
So it’s not just about how you shape the medium of language. It’s about how you tune into the frequency of your story, those subtle shifts that speak to a truth only you can articulate. It may not be the noblest or most profound truth, but it’s the song your voice is ideally suited to carry. The kind of song that, incidentally, makes the most memorable music.