Someone said to me lately that my writing here has improved in recent months, and I was sort of embarrassed at how good that made me feel, probably because in truth I have been trying in recent months, at least at those time when I’m willing to try. This is something new for me. I know this contradicts what I wrote recently, about my lack of enthusiasm for the craft, but so be it. I am human, therefore I contradict myself. Besides, the older I get, the more clearly I understand how two seemingly disparate truths can co-exist without diminishing one another.
I’ve long suspected that writing is one of those things that can’t really be taught. I mean, certain aspects can be learned, little tips and techniques and whatnot, but at its core, good writing springs from a place that does not fall under the sway of human will and intervention. But now I’m wavering in this belief, at least a bit. I think maybe my assumption came from my own laziness, my own unwillingness to really apply myself to those interventions.
Anyway. All this made me think of a post I wrote a while back, which in the spirit of the aforementioned laziness, I offer again. I’m not even sure I agree with all of it anymore, but I still think there’s some value in it.
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Other than dropping trapdoor-like through the second story floor of Melvin’s barn while retrieving a round bale, only to find myself plunging directly into the milking parlor below to land amongst a row of startled yearling heifers, yesterday was relatively unremarkable.
I landed directly on my feet, and stood there in stunned silence for a moment, while Melvin and Janet and the boys stared in wide-eyed wonder, unsure of whether to burst into laughter or call an ambulance. Fortunately, for me everything was pretty much exactly the same. I was just 10-feet lower than I’d been a quarter-second prior, courtesy of the fact that like most old barns, Melvin’s features a variety of boarded-over cut-outs, the known purpose of which died with one previous owner or another. Only, this cut out was wasn’t so much boarded-over, as cardboarded-over (it wasn’t literally cardboard, but some sort flimsy, long discarded quarter-inch building board), with the intention of keeping the cold air of the unheated upper floor from sinking into the milk room. Melvin knew where the hole was. Melvin typically retrieves the bales. At one point, months ago, Melvin had even drawn my attention to the hole, saying something like “you might not want to step there.” Ergo, the covering need not bear a human’s weight.
I’ve never really liked being told what to do, so I went ahead and stepped where I damn well pleased.
Anyway. I got a great question via email last night, and although I was actually planning to take the day away from this space, this question really got me thinking. Besides, I’m so grateful to have survived last night’s adventure with nary a scratch that I’m feeling particularly delighted with life, which I’ve found is generally a good frame of mind from which to answer questions.
How did you go about developing your ‘voice’? Your writing comes across as very “voice-y” (if that’s a word). I’m guessing it comes down to lots of practice, lots of blog posts, 10,000 hours, polishing, perfecting, sweating, just writing, fewer distractions, etc. It may not be a conscious thing anyway, how that develops.
Just wanted to get a quick thought on that. Maybe though you just came out of the womb with a keyboard in hand, ready to go.
And I really loved this part of the email, which isn’t a question, but I still wanted to share:
I count storytelling as the purest form of manufacturing. Out of such simple inputs come these great big, glorious outputs, more powerful than any car, airplane, or building.
Back to the question. How does one develop voice in his or her writing? Well, here’s one thing: People often talk about writers “finding their voice,” but I’ve never really understood that. I don’t think you can “find” your voice, because the moment you go looking for your voice, you’re screwed. It’s like looking for love, or for a contact lens in a lake. I mean, it might happen, but it ain’t too friggin’ likely.
To my way of thinking, your voice finds you. And it finds you through everything you do and all the influences that surround you. The music you listen to. The friends you keep. Where you live. The people you love. What you read, of course. And on and on and on. My family is in my written voice. Melvin and his barn with the hole I fell through last night. Our cows. This house. My affection for this land. Lately, Jason Isbell. Certainly, my parents. The simple fact that I’m about to go hand milk a cow in five-degree-below-zero weather. That’s all in my voice.
But of course these influences don’t just spring forth fully formed into good or even not-so-good writing (and lord knows, I’ve produced my share of the latter). You do have to write. You have to write a lot. I think, most importantly, you have to become as close to unselfconscious as you can become, because when you get to that place, that’s when your voice will make itself truly known.
Another thing: In my experience, voice is not static. My voice is somewhat (though not entirely) different in this space than it is in my magazine articles, or books. I think that’s because it’s simply too exhausting for both the reader and myself to carry the energy and pacing of these shorter blog posts into longer work. I’ve tried, and it just doesn’t work. I sort of wish it did, because I most enjoy the voice that comes through in this space. Maybe someday I’ll learn how to bring it to the page.
And voice is always evolving. I’m sure there are some foundational aspects that will stay with me for my entire life, but I’m equally sure that my writing voice will change over the years. Maybe for the better; maybe not. I don’t know that I can control it, really. The only thing I know is that if I can remain as unselfconscious as possible and keep on talking (remembering that often it’s the fewest words that say the most), folks just might want to hear my stories.
To sum it all up. Voice: Don’t go looking. Be unafraid. Write. And let everything in.
Hope this helps.
Addendum: I was thinking about this a bit more during chores and realized two things. First, my advice to “be unafraid” is a bit flip. On some level or another, I think everybody’s afraid of revealing themselves through their writing (or otherwise). So maybe it’s more accurate to say “be less afraid.” And remember that just as fear is learned, so is fearlessness. Or increased fearlessness.
Second, I don’t think you have to be either happy or unhappy to write well. But you sure as hell better be interested.