voice lessons: finding your inner writer

No word yet from the NYC agent who requested (and received) the complete manuscript for my first work of literary fiction.

In honor of my continuing patience (and said agent’s ongoing health, wealth, and happiness!), here is a piece I wrote back in 1999. Other than a few changes aimed at de-genderization, it appeared in the August issue of The Women’s Times, a monthly newspaper based in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and distributed throughout areas of western Massachusetts, northern Connecticut, eastern New York, and southern Vermont. Alas, no real Internet presence yet for TWT — though the world will clearly be a better place once that happens.

Here’s part of what appeared at the end of the article: “This piece was conceived in a coffee shop in Heber City, Utah; fertilized in a 1969 VW bus traveling through Montana; and written in the Durango, Colorado, public library.”

* * * * * * * *

Voice Lessons
Finding your inner writer

I started writing as soon as I could, well, write.

I still have the triple-spaced, blue-lined, wood-chunked, horizontal sheets of paper that were standard issue in the hardcopy-based elementary schools of years gone by. I wrote a story about an angry mother blue jay who pecked out the eyes of a too-curious young boy. I wrote poems about the coming of spring, effortlessly rhyming sun and fun and one and run without missing a beat.

By the time I was forty, I had spent twenty-plus years writing newspaper stories and annual reports and bag stuffers and ads and direct mail packages and press releases and other people’s bios. I had strung letters together to create personalized greeting cards and monologues, fundraising letters and posters, handbooks and booklets, radio commercials, invitations, and scripts for an Asian cable TV home shopping channel.

Not-so-deep inside, I knew I wasn’t a real writer. Not like the writers who wrote novels. Not like the poets. Not like Toni Morrison. I was a hack, and that didn’t count. It wasn’t until I hit forty, sitting in bed one day feeling disconnected, with tears streaming down my face, that I could acknowledge and voice my own truth. “I am a writer,” I said out loud to nobody but myself. It felt good, so I said it again and again until I believed it.

Yet claiming that label opened the door to a whole new bag of worms. (Remember, writers can mix metaphors like that and be lauded for poetic license, rather than fingerprinted for creeping senility.) Introducing myself as a writer invariably leads to a line of questioning that goes like this:

“Oh, you’re a writer! What kind of writing do you do?” – for which I have no easy answer, so I want to skip the whole thing and pretend I have an exterminating business instead.

Then comes “Are you published?” or the slightly more brutal, “Where would I have seen your work?” Although my work has appeared in several national magazines, I still want to respond by saying that some of my best work can be seen scattered on the floor under my kitchen table, stuffed into old envelopes, or neatly entombed in plastic waterproof storage units under my parents’ bed.

Why is it that we spend so much energy seeking to validate the fruits of our most personal creative expression? We are pushed from the outside and driven from the inside to make our writing count by selling it, by sharing it, by having it show up on a crowded bookshelf in a store that would sell our most heartfelt meanderings of the soul the same way others sell motor oil and toilet paper and processed cheese.

Forget that old thinking! Here are five universal and absolute truths about writing. If you don’t like them, write your own.

1. Everyone is a writer. All you need to do is put words on paper. Leave a love note in your child’s lunch box. Hide gifts at holidays and write rhymes with clues to lead seekers to their treasure. Stop buying greeting cards and compose your own. Use your own words. When people walk all over you, pound out your feelings in words. Put them in a drawer and visit them often, and when you can laugh your way through every line, rip up the pages and toss or bury or burn them.

2. You’re a writer whether you’re writing or not. Being a writer is a state of being, not a prescription for what you do with your days and nights. The writerly life can include spending leisurely hours in coffeehouses and cafes, walking down secluded country lanes, listening to great or not-so-great music, crying through old movies, and eavesdropping on the untold riches of human conversation. Being a writer means listening, asking, observing, making love, breathing, waiting, cleaning behind the stove, and on occasion, picking up a pencil, pen or mouse and putting words down on paper or screen.

3. You’re a writer no matter how or when you write. Fine, do your three morning pages in a journal you bought for that purpose. Or do six of them, or four or ten. Do them at night or in the afternoon, on the bus or at the laundromat or sitting at your great-aunt’s 19th-century writing desk. Write every day between 8am and noon or write at 3am, or write every fifth Tuesday or write when the moon is full. Write when you feel like it. Or when you don’t, but feel compelled nonetheless. Write with a quill pen or an old #2 pencil with the eraser chewed off, on beautiful handmade rag paper or coffee-stained napkins or on the back of that old roll of shelf paper decorated with sheep wearing bows around their necks. Surround yourself with wildflowers blanketing a meadow or with great art or great smells from the oven, with gas pumps and the din of traffic, or with the potent mystery of nothing at all.

4. You’re a writer whether any other human being ever sees (or likes) your writing. It’s heart and soul that make writing “real,” not publication. Share your writing if you want to, or relish it as a most delicious secret for you alone. Love it without feedback, without some so-called expert telling you that your syntax sings and your plotline flows. Love your writing whether it’s in complete sentences or bits and pieces travelling sideways across a page. Love your misspellings, your mixed metaphors. Just because something is written doesn’t mean it should be published. If someone gives you money for your writing, it means your writing has value in the marketplace. No more, no less.

5. The only truth that matters in writing is your own. Like all things profound, writing is a journey, not a destination. Write because you’re ready to explode with feelings and memories that have been building for years. Write your anger, write your fears, write your bliss. Write for yourself, for your own eyes. Did I mention write for yourself? Write because it’s easier than speaking out loud, or because it’s harder. Because it stretches you further. Because it forces you to reach inside and scrape against bones and suck out the marrow of your soul. Keep everything you write, or don’t keep a single word. The gift is not what ends up on paper, but what you give yourself on the way to getting there. Give yourself the freedom to write. Give yourself the space. And then tell yourself out loud, “I am a writer,” over and over, until you believe it.

4 thoughts

  1. Thought-provoking comment, Malcolm. Writing is communication. But I usually find I don’t know what I’m communicating until I’ve formulated it for myself… ‘Writing is a journey’…


  2. Malcolm,

    Well said! I, too, know all too well the paradox of the “mystically inclined writer.” And, after many decades of writing solely for money, I also enjoy the experience of writing for love. At the end of the day, however, my urgings to share always rise to the top…


  3. Personally, I find the translation of my thoughts into a linear series of words on a page very cumbersome; it’s rather like trying to nail down the position of an electron that moves because we’re observing it.

    So, it’s been a long time since I put words on a page simply for my own use; they were always an attempt to communicate something to somebody. This puts the mystically inclined writer into a paradoxical postion: s/he is asked to write and to do everything else without concern about outcomes, yet until the novel or the short story or the poem is published, the task of having written it remains incomplete.

    Seeing the book on the shelf at the bookstore is not so much about validation, but a step in completing the task (or perhaps, the mission). I do not need to communicate to myself by writing notes and poems to myself. While my fiction is a cathartic rendering of my inner journeys, it is first and foremost a communication of these journeys to others, as step that seems at times to be forever in the hands of others from agents to editors.



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