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Finding My VOICE—Writing for ME

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Yesterday, I took you on a trip down my memory lane with excerpts of things I wrote as a child/teenager. I also mentioned that in college, as I got deeper into academic writing through Comp classes—and the fact I was a history minor and was constantly writing research papers (even one or two just for “fun”)—my creative work began to become, to use Tom Wolfe’s term, “beige.”

In 1992, while on a trip to Rite Aid for…who knows what…my best friend Amy and I were discussing our lives and those of our closest friends. She made the comment, “I wonder where we’ll all be in five years.” For me as a writer, these were not just idle words. I went home that night and started writing about the two of us and several of our closest friends: what we were doing for jobs, who was married to whom—and who wasn’t yet married—where we all lived, and how our lives still twined together. And I wrote it all from my own first person POV—because that was how I experienced those people and those lives. I was not writing this with any view to publication—in fact, Amy was the only person I ever let read any of it, as I was writing it solely for our entertainment. I wrote it just as I would have worded it if I were making it up and saying it aloud—it was natural, I never struggled for words to explain things, I never got writer’s block. Granted, technically and craft-wise, it left a lot to be desired. But when I go back and look at it now (even though I eventually changed it to 3rd person, changed all of the characters’ names because they were actually characters with little resemblance to the originals, and changed the location of the setting), I can see where I started exercising the humor in my narrative, detailed descriptions of settings and characters, the rhetorical questions that I love, the figures of speech I learned through all of my writing classes, and my love for dialogue—dialogue that mimicked how I heard people speak in real life. I called it “A Shared Dream.”

About the time I started writing Dream, I slipped into a depression that within a few months led me to drop out of school and move to live with my parents hundreds of miles away from the people whom I was writing about. This story became a refuge, a retreat—the place I escaped to when the realities of life became too much to handle. It was where I could just be me—no pressure to put on a happy face and pretend like everything was okay. For the next decade, even after coming out of my depression in early 1993, I escaped to what would eventually become my fictional city of Bonneterre, Louisiana, to spend time with the “people” there who had gotten me through one of the roughest times of my life. I wasn’t reading any writing craft books. I didn’t subscribe to any writing how-to magazines. I read voraciously—romances, mainly, but some mainstream popular fiction as well. I reveled in writing how I wanted to write instead of how I’d been told in both of my college Creative Writing classes I should be writing—it was almost an act of defiance.

Although I wrote enough scenes to push the word count of this “manuscript” over 200,000 words, I was also exploring other story ideas, other characters. After my first writing conference in 2001 when I made the commitment to become serious about my writing and pursuing publication, the first two manuscripts I completed were characters I had developed during the previous years while writing Dream. I had spent so much time developing my fictional city that it was only natural to use it as a continuing setting for stories I would write in the future, including Happy Endings Inc.

There are two reasons I believe have helped me maintain my Author’s Voice:

1. A wide variety of reading materials. Yes, growing up, I read mainly historical romances, and that genre is still my favorite. But I also read a ton of classic literature (can’t get away from it being an English major) as well as historical journals and diaries (ditto, history minor). My dad turned me on to Tom Clancy and Tony Hillerman. My mom passed along her love of cozy mysteries. I read science fiction and fantasy, such as schoolmate Maria Snyder’s Poison Study and Magic Study. I return to my favorite YA fiction again and again—including some I discovered as an adult, such as Harry Potter, or some I’ve had for more than twenty years, like Rosamund duJardin’s Tobey Hayden series. My sister loves John Grisham, so I started reading his books to see what the fascination is. And, of course, I have an entire wall of bookshelves dedicated to Christian fiction that runs the gamut of these genres. By reading widely—across all genres—it’s so much easier to see how there is no one all consuming “should” of writing. That those I sometimes enjoy the most break more rules than they uphold. That some of the best storytellers are the worst at craft or POV or showing/telling, or active writing. But they have such a great storyteller’s voice that it doesn’t matter.

2. Stubbornness. Or pride or whatever you want to call it. I’ve never been one to do something a certain way just because I’ve been told it “should” be done that way. As a matter of fact, I’m more likely to question, argue, or dig in my heels when I’m told I “should” do something or that I “should” do it a certain way (and that word starts looking really strange after typing it several times!). One of the areas I used to get high marks on at my previous job was the fact that I would find new and innovative ways to improve processes or procedures that helped us get work done more effectively and efficiently. This seems, on the surface, at odds with my innate personality that dreads change and likes things to stay the same. But digging a little deeper, the change I dread is change just for the sake of change. One of my greatest pet peeves in life is people or organizations who won’t make changes that have been proven necessary or good simply because it’s never been done that way before. (Thus why I don’t attend church business meetings any more.) While some “shoulds” are good when it comes to writing—we should use limited POV instead of omniscient because it makes our writing stronger, we should watch out for repetitious words or phrases, we should show more and tell less—there are other “shoulds” that we can ignore—we should spend a lot of time reading craft books, we should strive to write like our favorite authors because there must be something special about them as they’re published and we’re not, we should study the classics and eschew contemporary writers, we should incorporate words in our writing we would never use in conversation with our friends because they make us sound like better writers, and so on. Whenever I hear a “should” when it comes to writing, there are a few sources I go to if it is something I’ve never heard before—trusted writing friends whose voice and style I admire and the couple of craft books I have learned a lot from, including Stein on Writing. (You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?)

So, where along your journey did you go from being your own eclectic self to jumping into the river of beige? Going back through your writing journey, and, as we did yesterday, looking at your past writing, where do you see glimpses of your real self shining through and where do you see you were starting to adjust your writing to someone else’s “shoulds”?

Tomorrow, we’ll look more in depth at the “shoulds” and the people we allow to squelch our Author’s Voices and what we can do to start reestablishing our voices. As the series continues, we’ll also look at voice in contemporary vs. historical settings as well as first drafts and rewrites.

  1. Erica Vetsch permalink
    Wednesday, February 21, 2007 1:28 pm

    I think my voice shifted after I finished my second manuscript. I had soaked up so many writing craft books, and had heard so many discussions on ‘rules’ that I pruned my work to sterility. Right now, I’m reading my ms aloud to see if it ‘sounds’ like me telling a story, or if it sounds like me reading someone else’s.


  2. Georgiana D permalink
    Thursday, February 22, 2007 9:12 am

    That’s a great question. I wrote a ton back in junior high/high school, tapered off some in college, and totally lost it when I started my career and was a single mom. Once I picked it up again I started reading craft books almost immediately (which, by the way, I’m enjoying Stein on Writing!) The first novel I wrote was TERRIBLE!!! Not worthy of paper ever. I think it’s because I wasn’t using my voice, I was trying to write a deep, moving women’s fiction, and that’s so not me. When I started my first chick lit it was like, WOW, this is way easier than trying to be someone else.


  3. Kaye Dacus permalink
    Thursday, February 22, 2007 9:30 am

    Although I may be a bit biased, I must say that from what I’ve read of both of yours, you both have found your unique voices! In both genres–historical and chick lit–there is the danger of either letting the events (historical) overwhelm the voice or of trying to fit in with the perceived standards of the genre (chick lit). Neither of you have let that happen!


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