Finding Your Writing Voice
My earliest memories of the written word are of voice in literature. Before I knew what author’s “voice” was, my mother was giving actual voice to the works of A.A. Milne and Roald Dahl. My brother and I would gather around the dining room table and my mom would read from “The House at Pooh Corner.” We would beg her to continue for hours on end because she gave every character a distinct voice. We couldn’t wait to hear what Rabbit or Kanga sounded like. Piglet was squeaky and nervous, talking extremely fast and in an almost stream-of-consciousness way. Eeyore was sarcastic and sad with a grumpy, deep voice that was self-deprecating while also demanding the readers’ every last ounce of sympathy. Pooh was careless—but not in a forgetful way—although he was forgetful and rather air-headed. Pooh’s true carelessness was more of a carefree-ness—a blissful ignorance that allowed him to exist in a world where it didn’t matter what anyone thought of him—except Christopher Robin who so tirelessly showered him with unconditional love.
The beauty of my mom’s reading was the way in which she brought Milne’s words—Milne’s voice—to life. Eeyore wasn’t pathetic and jaded simply because my mom wanted him to sound that way. Milne’s careful choice of words gave Eeyore his forlorn personality. Milne’s voice—pastoral and magical and hilarious and sweet—was what made the Winnie the Pooh stories so beloved and timeless.
Yesterday’s list of reasons for blogging included one that stood out above the rest—this blog has helped me find my fiction writing voice. My journey to fiction writing has had huge ups and downs. In first grade I wrote a story about the Three Billy Goats Gruff from the Troll’s perspective. To an outsider, it was a mess of crayon scratches and misspelled words. But to me it was a masterpiece—not only for the amount of effort I put into it, but for the way in which it made me laugh. In seventh grade, I wrote a story about an Inuit boy who caught the biggest whale in the world. It was irreverent and surprising. It was satiric and bordered on way too tongue-in-cheek. But while it made me laugh until I almost wet my pants, it also contained serious emotion and serious topics. I had managed to make myself snicker while still evoking emotions that made me cringe or tear up a little.
Then I got to high school. I became very serious about writing. I’d spent my middle school years falling in love with Jane Eyre and the works of Jane Austin and Thomas Hardy. I believed I had to write like these people to be a real writer. I wrote a story about a girl visiting the Vietnam Wall. I wrote poems about dead trees. In college, I wrote stories about bulimic girls putting coat hangers down their throats and towns ravaged by tornadoes. I agonized over these assignments. The disappointing part was that I hoped these would be my writing masterpieces. On paper, they were all fairly successful pieces of literature, but they were flat. They’d fulfilled the requirements of the assignment, but they felt cliché and lacked emotion—at least in my book.
At the same time, I wrote an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet about crayons and a long poem about Catalpa trees. Did you know that Siddhartha is a great slant rhyme for “catalpa”? When I was writing these pieces (and more like them) I was Pooh Bear—too ignorant to care what anyone thought of them. Writing them for me and more importantly, writing them AS me. These were the pieces that contained my voice. But I was too terrified of their irreverent and cheeky qualities to recognize that they could be considered quality pieces of writing. And no one had every told me that the pieces I had the most fun writing were the ones that often turned out the best. Granted, they needed A LOT more editing than my serious pieces over whose every word I agonized, but my “careless” Pooh Bear pieces were more creative and inherently more interesting.
Fast forward several years. I’m writing professionally. I’m writing for scientific publications. I’m writing for newspapers. I’m writing press releases. I’m writing for publications that don’t have a cheeky sentence in their pages. And people are paying me to do this. I must be doing something right. Right?
However, then I sat down to write fiction. I spent the first four years of my fiction writing life trying to translate these well-honed non-fiction skills into my fiction world. I also got so hung up on wanting to sound like Barbara Kingsolver or wanting to evoke emotions like Maya Angelou. I ended up sounding like cardboard and evoking the emotions of sawdust. I was frustrated and felt like maybe I wasn’t cut out to write fiction. Maybe non-fiction was my niche.
Then I started blogging. And it was really fun. I could sit down and jot off some thoughts about life or the written word and have fun while I was doing it. Images and characters started to emerge. A one-eyed pageant winner who lost her eye in a tragic monkey attack while filming a commercial in Borneo. Bob, who played his legendary round of Texas Hold ‘Em on a gambling boat in seas filled with 16-foot waves and mafia hit men. And I was having fun. Once again I had found my inner Pooh Bear. It didn’t matter what anyone thought of me. I was carefree and light-hearted. And the same voice kept emerging again and again.
What it took me a year to realize is that this voice that kept inserting itself into my writing was constantly reappearing for a reason. The wordy, frenetic voice that could talk about sometimes serious topics in oftentimes not-serious ways was MY voice. It was the same voice that waxed rhapsodic about catalpa trees and the same voice that narrated the Troll’s defeat under the bridge.
I sat down one month ago to start work on my next novel. (More to come in a future post on the origins of this book) And I stopped fighting my voice. I stopped trying to be someone I wasn’t and I just wrote. I wrote like I was telling a story to my best friend—not a newspaper editor or a Pulitzer committee. It was messy and long-winded, but it just flowed like nothing ever has. And words are continuing to flow. I’ll admit, the story’s narrator is quirkier than I ever thought I would write. I’m no Jane Austin or Barbara Kingsolver, that’s for sure. But I’ve finally found my Pooh Bear and in the process MY VOICE. And I owe it all to this blog and the many readers who have served as my Christopher Robin—offering up unconditional love and a “Silly Ol’ Bear” at just the right time. So thanks, Blogosphere. Thanks