Finding the Writing Voice
(The following was originally published in Slate & Style, the Magazine of the National Federation of the Blind Writers' Division.)
Recent events in my life conspired to send me back to school for training. As finances would have it, a full time writing program was unattainable, and perhaps undesirable. If one says to a university, "I want to write better," one is advised to major in literature. Writing majors exist, but generally they encourage the student to study other people's writing. Literature again. I've already done that, and couldn't drum up a huge amount of interest. But a quick look in the yellow pages yielded the name of "The New York Studio for Writers." That seemed a bit more promising. I phoned, and left a message on the school's machine. If one can't talk to answering machines these days, one can't function properly.
To my surprise--and I was surprised--I received a call back only a few hours later, and thus began my involvement with a writing coach.
Until this past summer, I had no idea writing coaches existed. If anyone asked, I would have told them I'm a pretty good writer, just unlucky when it comes to getting published by a commercial concern. I really believed it was true. I've taken a couple of writing courses in the past, creative writing, or how to market your romance, or how to write a good story without giving away the end before you get to it. I would sit in the class with about twenty other students, and think, what am I doing here? I write better than these people. And sometimes it would even be true.
However, sometimes it wouldn't be true. How does one tell the difference? The New York Studio for Writers is (was) run by Barton A. Midwood. Mr. Midwood is a published writer who has been teaching writing for many years on the college and graduate levels. The studio features both group and individual instruction. Groups cost a little less. I opted for individual, since I had never had that kind of instruction before. I brought with me several issues of SLATE & STYLE, a magazine I edit, and a novel I'd been working on which I couldn't seem to finish, and left them to be examined. During the initial interview, I talked a little about myself and a little about my writing. I wasn't sure what to expect, and I think neither was he.
During the next six weeks, I wrote and he read. He was impressed by the volume of writing I could do in a short time, and puzzled that though the writing was clean and understandable, it didn't seem to be literature, and the dialogue was banal. Banal! Since I seemed to write most of my novels in dialogue, this was a blow. But in a very short time, I grew to respect my teacher's quality, so I took what he said seriously. Finally, he laid out my problem.
Although, said he, I was a good writer, I was under the misapprehension that I had to lead up to the subject under discussion, instead of presenting it up front, and going on from there. Also, though he respected the depth of my experience, I seemed to be treating a serious subject on a superficial level. And finally, although I was what Jung would describe as a thinker, I had been persuaded at an early age that thinking was a function I ought to subjugate since females were primarily the feeling type. He felt that if I made use of my strengths, instead of running from them, I would be a better writer.
No one had ever spoken to me this way, because no one had ever taken the time to get to know me before looking at my writing and examining its problems. Working with Mr. Midwood was like going to a therapist, in that he helped me peel back the layers of defenses I'd erected through my writing to protect myself from outside forces I felt were attacking me. Once the defenses were down, I was able to look squarely at the kind of writing I'd been doing, and to put it aside as simply a habit, not a creative effort.
He suggested I put together three plots which I'd never developed before, and we would go from there. I did this, basing the plots on incidents in my early life. The first of these has developed into a decent little novel, written in the first person. The voice is my own, and since it's mine, it is a unique voice, though no doubt it could speak to the segment of the population from whence I come. And that's the whole point.
Too many people try to be someone else when they write, instead of speaking from their own experience. Think about yourself. As a writer, you are already a unique voice. How many well-known, published writers who share your characteristics are there? how many come from your town? From your family background? How many share your religion? Your ethnicity? When you factor all these details into the equation, you get a product no one else can equal. Your writing should express you. Your experiences, although shared on the broader level, are unique on the specific.
Often people who write are frightened early on by those who reject their work with simply, "This doesn't meet our editorial needs." I don't find that helpful, and try not to do it. Often when I give detailed reasons for rejection, it starts a dialogue regarding the origins of the piece of writhing. I hope others find such a dialogue as helpful as I do.
When you write with your own voice, you write truth, and truth will find a market. When you share your own experiences, yes, you must discard your defenses, but the results are worth it.
Lori Stayer has been writing since she could write, and telling stories before that. She resides with her husband, David, on Long Island. On her closet shelves are better than two hundred novels, or perhaps seven novels, and one hundred ninety three revisions. She has been active in the National Federation of the Blind Writers' Division since its beginnings in 1982, and is the editor of Slate & Style, a magazine for blind writers. Contact Lori.