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Finding our VOICE—A Trip Down Memory Lane

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

As promised, here I am back again with more on VOICE.

Erica asked: “Do you think it is easier to identify another person’s voice than it is to identify your own?”

Yes, I do believe it is—just as it’s easier to hear that someone else has an accent than to hear our own (great analogy, btw!).

Many of us who are now writing as adults wrote as children as well. We all had to do it for school whether nor not we did it for pleasure. One of the main things that kills our natural Author’s Voice is the instruction and correction we receive through formal education. We are taught to have an “academic” voice. We are taught we must write in complete sentences. We are taught we should not use conjunctions. We are taught we must not begin sentences with conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for, so, because, etc.). We are taught we must not end sentences in prepositions. We are taught that only a certain few authors are worthy of reading, which leads us to believe that we should imitate their style/voice. We are taught to always write with a public or “beige” voice (as Tom Wolfe called it). Heaven help those who took or are taking creative writing classes at most colleges where Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Hemingway are venerated and all popular fiction dismissed as trash.

We’ve been taught to leave our own voice at the door through all of this. (Oops, I used a contraction! Quick, call the literary police!) We’ve also learned to have an inferiority complex when it comes to writing in our own natural voice. We’re told it’s not “right,” it’s not “good enough,” it’s not “what’s expected,” it’s not “literary enough.”

In researching something totally different today, I ran across this blog article: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2006/03/19/182004.php. When I first started reading it, I expected to be completely offended by the end. Here was another literary creative writing snob talking about how horrible the romance genre is. But as I read it, and as she explained her experience with trying her hand at writing something completely out of her comfort zone, I started to see how this, for her, was an exercise in discovering her Author’s Voice. She had to go completely outside of the writing which she found most comfortable to truly discover the way in which she writes best.

It may not take something as drastic as changing to a totally different genre (like me trying to write horror—imagine! The horror, the horror!). What it may take is a trip down memory lane for us to be able to start to recognize our writer’s voice.

So I went through my archives and pulled out a notebook containing much of my old writing. Here’s something from a booklet we put together in second grade (as punctuated and spelled in the original):

My Christmas Vacation
by Kathy Dacus

The day we got out of school I went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They had a lot of snow. My sister and I played in the snow. Bur-Bur it was cold down there. Finally it was Christmas. My two little cousins named Rusty and his big brother Ryan who is three years old we played with them. I couldn’t believe that it was Christmas. I said, “I can’t believe it is Christmas!”

See, even for school assignments, I was making stuff up! Lots of snow in Baton Rouge??? I can’t believe the teacher gave me an S on that paper!

What do I see about my style in this? Well, my tendency to over explain in long sentences.

Okay, so next, let’s look at something I wrote in ninth grade (a history report that actually won a school-wide award . . . it was a very small school):

The Political and Religious Turmoil in England
I will start my report some years before the year Columbus discovered America. In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the “new world”. England paid little to no attention to their newly found province. England ruled over most of the world at this time, any way, so what did a new unexplored province mean to them? All of the other provinces that they accumulated were already populated so all they had to do was to make the people work for England, and England would be rich. The ruler of this time was Henry VII.

Aha! The (slightly sarcastic) rhetorical question! I use this device in my writing all the time now. Okay, I have to include the conclusion just for giggles:

Many things that happened in England, to me are very detestable. A lot of the things that happened are not very ethnic. The people, on the most part, were rotten people committing adultery and such. I am glad I did not live in that era.

Let’s move forward one year to a rough draft of a paper I wrote in 10th Grade AP English (what a difference a year makes!):

Control is something all people would like to have, whether they know it or not. Some people want to control other people, others just want to run their own lives. In Eudora Welty’s short story “Livvie,” the control that one person has on another is a major factor of the theme. Through mythological connotations, symbolic names, release or rebirth, and the characters’ trials, Welty shows her theme that if people have their lives controlled by an outside force, they are likely to want release.

Beige is starting to force its way in here. But my natural tendency toward lists and long, complex sentences works well in academic writing. Perhaps that’s why I always enjoyed composition classes.

Now, on to my senior year and my very first Creative Writing class (with the same teacher who gave me a C on the final draft of the above paper):

Kathy Dacus
Creative Writing
October 4, 1988
Daily Observation

Monday, 5:45 PM

An upside down, mangled bakery box. That’s what it was, just sitting there in the middle of the street.

They’re dead. All of those doughnuts are dead. Their cream or jelly fillings spilled out senselessly on the cold, hard pavement. It’s a gruesome sight: splattered icing, crumbled doughnuts.

Someone’s car has the tell-tale sign of a murdered box of doughnuts, but whose?

Here, I have humor/sarcasm, long sentences punctuated with short punches, rhetorical question, description, and a couple of sentence fragments. The same teacher who drilled beige writing into my head just two years before saw this and started encouraging me to explore creative writing more and more. In that class, we wrote poetry, fairy tales, short stories, and short one-act dramas. We had to get other students in the class to act out our drama scene—and part of our grade was determined by the rest of the class’s feedback on it. I got the highest grade because everyone said that my dialogue was realistic and natural sounding.

One of the things that this teacher did with us was mark points off for every clichéd phrase we used. In our various projects, he made us incorporate different devices like similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, oxymorons, etc. This is where my love for these techniques blossomed and became part of my writing toolbox.

In college, I took the requisite freshman comp classes but also took Advanced Composition as an elective. It was one of the few classes during my first round of undergrad (before dropping out) that I enjoyed and worked hard for an A in.

Yet when I look at my creative work from that time period, it was starting to look rather beige—mostly because I had been knocked around ruthlessly with critiques on the first short story piece I submitted in my Creative Writing class (and that was my major!) and was trying to imitate a more “literary” voice.

So, how did I break myself of beige prose and find my Author’s Voice?

Tune in tomorrow (laughs wickedly).

3 Comments
  1. Erica Vetsch permalink
    Tuesday, February 20, 2007 7:15 pm

    Very interesting blog link there. I’m glad someone recognized that writing anything well (Even genre romance) is hard work! I can see where my own ‘beige’ training overshadows my work.

    I first began wondering about voice when a lady from my Bible study group who had just found out I wrote Christian fiction said, “Well, I hope whatever you write is as funny as you are. You always make me laugh.”

    I did a mental head scratch. I can’t say my stories are particularly funny, in fact, some of the subject matter is decidedly not funny.

    The next book, I’m going to try something lighter and see what ‘timbre’ my voice is in that.

  2. Mary permalink
    Wednesday, February 21, 2007 6:21 pm

    This was a fun trip! You’re making me want to go dig up some of my old writings/school assignments! Wish I knew where they were…probably packed away at my parent’s house…

  3. Mary permalink
    Thursday, February 22, 2007 7:44 am

    Kaye, I’m not sure why there wasn’t a pingback, but I linked to this post today from Writer…Interrupted in one titled: Word Power. That dialect/accent thing I mentioned. :O)

    Thanks for all the good info.

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