20 Ways to Make it Better (#2)

#2. Write in your own voice

Remember Eddie Haskell on the old television program, “Leave it to Beaver”?

“How are you today, Mrs. Cleaver? You certainly look lovely.” “Isn’t it a lovely day today, Mrs. Cleaver?” He had this way of speaking to June Cleaver that was so fake, so phony. Not at all the way he spoke with Wally and The Beav. June didn’t believe him and neither did we.

Do you ever talk that way in your public voice? “Unaccustomed as I am…” “May I inquire…” Does it ever seep over into your writing?

Sometimes if we go for what we think of as proper or educated or smart, instead of sounding smart, we wind up sounding stilted. The natural rhythms and cadences of our real voices are absent and we don’t sound like ourselves or even anyone we know.

Here’s the thing: your own voice is the place and people you come from, the language you learned at the kitchen table and in the back yard. Your own voice comes naturally. Grace Paley said, “If you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends, you’ll probably say something beautiful.”

If you’re having difficulty getting words down on the page, if you feel like you’re arm-wrestling with your pen, if you scratch out and rewrite, if you think instead of writing, especially first-draft writing, then you can bet you’re not writing in your own natural, authentic voice.

Brenda Euland advises, ” Try to discover your true, honest, untheoretical self.”

How to do it? Just get a prompt, set the timer and let ‘er rip. You’ll clean it up later, but what you might discover in that messy draft on the page is your own beautiful, authentic, original voice.

Hearing Voices

Voices in our headsEvery writer has voices that speak to us. I’m not talking about characters who want their story told. The voices I’m talking about are the other voices: Those quiet little whispers, those petty insults, the boring nattering that goes on and on. Threats, blackmail, hissing and nagging, they’re all there. I’ve never heard a writer say that any of these voices is sweet or kind or encouraging. Mostly they’re mean-spirited and hard-hearted, they say things you’d never say to your best friend. Or even to someone you don’t like.

These voices – I’ve identified the major ones as the Editor, the Critic, the Censor – get in the way of our writing and even have the power to stop us from writing altogether. These natterers of negativity, to paraphrase Spiro Agnew, carry ancient messages from some underworld place that we picked up along the way, usually when we were very, very young. Yet here we are, adults with creative and often brilliant minds, still listening to them, still believing them, and still allowing them to live rent-free inside our heads. These voices do not serve us. They are not on our side. They come from fear and everyone knows that which comes from fear is small-minded and has bad breath.

Red PencilsLet’s talk about the Editor. The editor isn’t really a bad guy, some of my best friends are editors, but this voice can be pushy and often suffers from bad timing. This is the one that makes you cross out a perfectly good word and search for a better one. It sends you off to rifle through the dictionary, double-check the name of a mountain and Google a street map of Portland—all the places you don’t need to go when you’re still in the intuitive, creative mode. The editor can help us when we need correct grammar, when punctuation matters, when we need to get our facts straight and especially during the revision process and double-especially before we hit the “send” button or drop that manuscript in the mail. But it doesn’t help when we are in the throes of creating; here we need free rein to let ‘er rip.

One of the ways to by-pass the editor when you’re free-writing or during a writing practice session is to keep the pen moving or the fingers flying. Once you stop, you’re a goner—especially if you go back to reread what you’ve just flung down on the page. That’s when you’ll hear a little ahem, and the crisp, self-important voice of the editor will step in and tell you what’s incorrect about what you’ve just written. Or where you might want a stronger verb or that you’ve just violated a parallel construction or split your infinitive. You’ll be rewriting before you actually get anything written. This is why we don’t go back and reread what we’re writing while in the process of writing it. You can’t create and edit at the same time. So tell the Editor you appreciate its knowledge and many abilities, but how about taking a coffee break while you continue to get the first draft down.

I call my editor Al, in honor of my first mentor, Al JaCoby, whom I worked for a hundred years ago (and wouldn’t he haul out his red pencil for that sentence construction).

How do you shut off the Editor’s voice in your head?

Next time: The Critic and The Censor


Why Write by Hand?

This Glittering WorldI attended a book party for T. Greenwood’s new novel, This Glittering World, Saturday night at The Ink Spot. She read the first chapter and I knew when I got home, I’d dive right into the book, I was that caught up in the story. But being the kind of insecure writer that I am, on the drive home I fell into the icky-sticky place of comparing my rough draft of a messy first chapter with Tammy’s beautifully written, compelling, published first chapter. (This is a mistake. Don’t do it. )

After a few agonizing, self-conscious miles, I remembered a conversation Tammy I had a couple of weeks previously at the Annual Local Authors celebration hosted by the San Diego Public Library. A group of us were carrying on about our “process” as we writers tend to do when we get together (I have to leave the house to write; I have to have my Pilot Precise V7, fine point, blue ink; I can’t write a word without my bowl of dried cranberries . . . you probably have your own rites and rituals), and Tammy mentioned that she always writes her first drafts by hand.

“The computer makes it look so neat,” she said. “First drafts are way too messy to look that neat.”

I’m gleeful! A talented, prodigious writer like T. Greenwood who’s published six novels and written a couple more that are stuffed away in a drawer—she writes by hand, too!

People who know me know I’m an outspoken proponent of the write-by-hand method of getting those first raw words on the page. I write about it in my books, encourage it in my writing practice groups, and request students in my classes to at least try a week of writing by hand during our time together.

I take a lot of heat for this.

Why? is a question that inevitably comes up during interviews about writing practice, Why? my students invariably ask in our first class. Why? compulsive NaNoWriMo writers wonder, keyboards clacking. Because, I say, and quote a famous writer whose endorsement of writing-by-hand I scoured from the hundreds of articles and interviews I researched for just such verification. (John Updike, Pablo Neruda, Spalding Gray, bell hooks, Anne Tyler, Clive Barker, William Styron, Paul Auster, Richard Hugo, and now T. Greenwood, to name a few.)

So again, why write by hand? (from A Writer’s Book of Days)

  • Writing is a physical act; you should do it with your body.
  • Writing by hand is sensual; it allows you to feel the movement of pen against paper.
  • You can feel your heart beat when you write by hand; sometimes you can feel the pulse in your fingers. This gives rhythm to your writing.
  • Writing by hand allows you to write with your breath.
  • When you write by hand you slow down enough to write only some of your thoughts. In writing practice, more is not necessarily better.
  • You are more connected to your feelings when you write by hand.
  • Handwriting is alive.
  • You are in control when you write by hand (no low battery, malfunction, save command, or crash can interrupt you).
  • You can write anywhere when you write by hand.

I tell you, you’ll be amazed at what you discover when you write by hand and you might be surprised at how little you edit when you put pen to page instead of fingers to keyboard.

Just for the record, I do sometimes write directly on the computer, this blog post for example, and most of my nonfiction work. But when I want to get out of my own way and let the Muse have her way with me . . . it’s pen in hand, hand to page.

Future post: More about comparing our work to others’ and why it’s such a trap.