Attention!

Hey guys, for those of you who follow my blog semi-closely, I just thought I’d let you know that last night I finished the first draft of my novel. 105,000 words later and I have no more to write on the actual story line. From here on out it’s all revision and editing and debates with my best friends about what goes and what stays in the text. Cheers! Thanks for reading the blog. It’s been a crazy struggle, and I’ve let this blog kind of go as I delved further and further into my book. But the way out is through and here I am, standing with a finished book in my hand. Fuck, this feels good.

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Grasping the Wind: Describing the Nature and Features of Voice

We all know the feeling. We sit on our couches and our eyes move left to right and down the page, following the words this master has created. How do we know he’s a master? Well, just look! The way the writer uses the words, runs them together in strings of perfection that create the uninterrupted fictive dream. The writer uses his knowledge of his craft to a T. And what’s more? He sounds like no other writer. He sounds, in a word, like himself. It’s just impossible to think that he sounds like anyone else out there writing or having written. This magic, this seeming like one’s self is in my opinion the pinnacle of what a writer should aspire to. This pinnacle has a name and it’s bandied about in all circles of publishing, writing, and critiquing. It’s referred to as voice.

Okay, so we know what voice looks like when we see it. We know all the agents and editors and publishers and even our selves are looking for it. So why the hell can’t we find it? Why is it so damn unattainable? And worse, why is it we can’t see it in ourselves? When I was younger I spent way more time than was necessary or even helpful in trying to decide if I had found my voice yet. The answer, as you might have guessed, was no–I hadn’t found my voice yet. Like most, I didn’t even know what it would look like when I did it because it was my work I was trying to assess as having voice or not. What few people will tell you is the necessary tenets or qualities of voice and how it is attained. Now, this won’t be an end-all be all treatise on “5 FAIL-SAFE WAYS TO MAKE SURE YOU FIND YOUR VOICE!” Hardly. Though it would be wonderful to have something like that laid out in front of us so that all we would have to do would be to follow the recipe. Or would we? The point is that writing is far too mystical, alchemical, and artful for it to be as simple as all that. However, I will try to give some sort of bearing on how to go about finding your voice.

First, the definition. Last year, I attended the Tin House Writers Workshop and one of the first talks given was given by the Tin House editors. It was called the “Tin House View” and had to do with voice and why it was so important and, more importantly, just what the fuck it was. During the conversation, it was the Editor in Chief of Tin House Magazine, Rob Spillman who said, when asked to elaborate on the concept of voice, that voice was “having a sense of authority that tells the reader that the writer who wrote this knows what he is doing and is telling this story for a reason.” Definition one, right there. I hope a lightbulb is going off in your head as you read this, because it did to me when I sat and listened to this talk. Rob’s words pulled some sort of veil from my eyes and there it was: an actual almost touchable definition of voice.

The second definition of voice comes from a completely difference source. This summer I spent lots of time smoking various substances and lounging around the backyard with my favorite fellow writers. One day we got into a discussion about Quentin Tarantino (who I hate and who my friends seem to have some sort of affection for). I contended that it seemed like he was a one-trick pony who used violence as both a means and an ends and pretty much nothing else. My friends argued and I was finally persuaded to try and watch Kill Bill. The dialogue ended there, but then my friend Aaron said something that caught my attention.  He said, essentially, that the thing that made him admire Tarantino so much was that everything he did in his films seemed to have been on purpose, for a specific reason. Nothing was random or an accident. It just fit. Now, that didn’t necessarily convince me that Tarantino was great–but it did spark an idea in me that that was exactly what voice was. Filmmakers–Kubrick, Cohens, Fincher, Bergman–just like writers, end up developing a style (see: voice) that is recognizable almost at all times. Though this definition is very much like the previous one, I’d like to point out how it is not. The first definition concerned itself with authority, meaning staking a claim for respect and attention. Declaring oneself to be serious and worthy of consideration. This second definition focuses much more on intent of the artist and the perception of his work. In a word, this definition is concerned with control. The ability to control one’s work to the point that everything he does seems on purpose. This is the definition I will mostly be focusing on, though as I focus on the second definition, glimpses of the former one will continually rear up. Because the first definition is the one we have the least control over, seeing as how it relies on the perception of the reader to recognize the writer’s authority. But on the other hand, the second definition contains something in it that we can do something about, because it refers to action, to control, to agency. The first definition is the final product that should be arrived at after mastering the second one.

Okay, so now I’m going to ask you to forget about voice. Why? Because it’s for all intents and purposes, useless. Then what the fuck was all that going on about for (checks the word counter at the bottom left here…)950 words (that’s before the parenthetical)? I’ll tell you. If you want, go open a document right now and start writing like yourself. Write a story sounding like yourself. How far did you get? I know how it went, at least I know how it went for me when I used to try that: nowhere. The reason for that is because I was basically trying to reach the thing in an equation that lies on the other side of the equal sign separate from everything else. I was trying to reach the sum without investigating and mastering each of the parts. That’s called cheating (or so my high school Algebra teacher not so kindly informed me years ago).  Voice in fiction is what happens when all of the other parts of the alchemical process that is writing has been mastered (which are never really mastered, by the way). If you really want to reach your voice, look at your own writing that’s already there. It’s there. Just like the David was already there in the marble–all Michelangelo had to do was trim the excess. That’s your job as well.

Your writing is you. Your voice is you translated into your writing. Now all that’s left is to decide what reflects you. What do you concern yourself with when you write? These are the basis of everything in your writing. Character, point of view, setting, dialogue, description, and style (word usage, sentence length, cadence, etc.): these are the ingredients to your writing and to your voice. They are also the ingredients to the craft, the art that we dedicate ourselves to for some reason. The characters you write about, the places that shape your characters and say something about your stories, the ways in which people speak or don’t speak, the details you decide to turn your spotlight on, the images that strike you and seem to be yours you understanding them so well, the way in which you decide to construct your sentences and the words you choose to use–these are all the things that go into creating the marble block. Every piece has a meaning. It’s for you to decide what the meaning is. And here is where I leave you. From here on out, my advice, in fact, anyone else’s advice as you write that first draft and build up your marble block will cease to help. This is where writing is undeniably an art. No one can do it for you and you will never be able to do it unless you put yourself and only yourself into it. This is where all the agency in the world is in your hands. Nowhere else will you have as much control and responsibility as you do right here. I hope this inspires you, because god damn it, it inspires me. The idea that I’m the only one responsible for what becomes of this block of marble in front of me? People would most definitely kill to feel like they have this much control over something in their lives. We are the gifted ones who choose to do this as a profession, maybe if we can’t do it full time, even as a hobby. Some days it may feel like a curse, some days we have to open a vein and bleed to write. Some days it comes so easily we look back and think: who the hell wrote that? It’s a mysterious process we’re involved in and all the while we’re building up to the point where we have to trim the excess of the draft, the marble block we’ve created. This last part is where we surely shape the block into the David, into our voice. This part is called revision. And it’s all about coolness under pressure, of level-headedness–not the white-hot burn of inspiration.

So here we are. The last step of the process, which is kind of a never-ending one if you think about it. Whereas the writer in the heat of writing the first draft simply stops when he reaches the end, the process of revising is the last painful part for most writers. Having to go back and point out all the pockmarks and acne scars in this one, big enormous darling of his, the writer most likely (as I do) balks at the task, naively hoping that maybe there won’t be anything wrong with the work, that it will be an unstoppable Kerouac-ian bull of a book. You will be wrong. And I’m not so sure that Kerouac wasn’t just a bit of a liar, claiming that he didn’t edit anything of On the Road–it’s a nice thought, but probably a lie. And so the writer goes back and highlights, underlines, draws arrows, puts question marks on his beautiful darling. Then, as if this wasn’t enough, after applying the requisite flourishes and corrections, he then asks his friends, his most trusted advisors and respected colleagues to get in on the action, marking their own doubts in the form of question marks and underlines and what not. Though this seems indecent, this will actually be the most helpful part of the entire process, so pay attention. The time will soon come when your writer buddies will gather together and talk about your work. Take notes. They say what was good, what they thought was working, what  connections they saw between character, setting, description, dialogue, theme, etc. Then they will say what problems they had with it. Take notes. They will ask if you intended certain things, they will suggest improvements to draw the theme tighter or to flesh out characters, or any other number of things. Takes notes. Get a damn tape recorder. Anything to remember all these things flying around the air that could be useful. Just remember this: no matter who these people are–friends, colleagues, lovers, brothers or sisters, brothers or sisters in law, your word is law when it comes to your own work. You can take all their advice or none. The most important thing is that you learn what problems readers other than yourself are finding and that you find ways to fix those problems. Simple. I hope.

So there you are. After you have written something and edited it, revised it within an inch of its life, hopefully you will have something that reflects your voice. After the product is finished, maybe give it to the same people who revised it and maybe even give it to someone who hasn’t, someone who doesn’t read much or hasn’t read your stuff. My brother hardly reads at all, but he’s one of my best friends. We have late-night conversations that run until the sun rises. He gives great advise and he’s incredibly smart. So I give him a story of mine when I think it’s ready to go out. His word normally tells me when something is ready to go out. I ask him to let me know if it seems like whoever wrote this knows what he’s doing, like everything is doing what it’s doing because it’s supposed to be that way. This is where the first criterion of voice comes into play. By the end of your revision process, your story should claim an authority, claim that it deserves to be listened to and that you know what you’re doing. And maybe even more importantly, it should seem by the end of your story that it is being told for a reason. If your reader finishes with your story and says to himself, “Why the hell did I read this?” Or “What’s the point?” somewhere along the way the story lost the reader. This is not to say that every reader will respond the same way to your story. But if your most trusted readers are still missing the point, it’s back to the drawing board.

At this point I feel like I should say something really inspirational about voice and all writing in general. I guess all I have to say is that I hope that every day at some point while you’re writing your story, poem, or essay that you look up and stop and think how lucky you are to be doing this–to be crafting something that is drudged up from within and shines as an example of who you are, of what and how and when and where and, maybe most importantly, why you are. If, in the end of your story, after all that work, you feel like you have achieved this, then you will be luckier than most who attempt it–and, most likely, you will have found your voice.

The Beginning of the End

I have been writing my book since some time in November, when I was trapped in a hellish job where I slang corn dogs and sliced up chubs of meat for assholes who worked for Microsoft and Amazon. I know, what the fuck took me so long?! Honestly, I’m not really sure–though this is also the first book I’ve written where it wasn’t a rip-off of something else I have read, so it’s to be expected I suppose. But now, in the middle of summer I find myself so close to the end of my book that I can taste it. I say about two weeks more of writing 2,000 words a day should do it. With that, I mean I will be done with all the prinicipal word-writing. All the words to my book will be written two weeks from now. Two weeks. It’s so crazy to hear and to think that sometimes I feel like I don’t even want to finish my book. I don’t know if this is normal because I’ve never been at this point in the process where I’m so close to finishing something that’s such a part of me, but one part of me thinks that if I can just keep writing this thing forever, I’ll never have to tear it down.

I think one of the reasons for this fear of finishing is that the book is such a part of me that I balk at seeing what will happen when I show it to others. Not necessarily my friends who are amazing critics and who help me to refine my work as far as possible, but the people who I will send my work to for the final word on whether or not it will find representation or publication or not. I hate the idea that I am afraid of finishing my book because of what will happen to it when it is done but if I’m honest with myself, that’s pretty much it. Sending my book out into the cold cruel world is a frightening thing–especially to know that once I send it out, I’ll have to get to work on another project, whatever it may be. Maybe I’ll feel better about it after I’m finished. These may be the fears of someone who is on the brink of something awesome or wonderful and just doesn’t know it yet. This also tends to happen with people who are about to “level-up” in their writing, slumping into a kind of funk or plateau in their thinking or in their work right before a giant breakthrough pushes them forward.

Another reason I think finishing the book is becoming difficult is because somewhere in the back of my writer-brain, as I read the phrases and experience them coming forth, I know that on a sentence-by-sentence level as well as a conception-based level, I am far better a writer than I was when I began my project. On the face, this seems completely heartening and no cause for anything but celebration. But thinking back, that means 8 months of improvement will have to be reconciled once the book is done. Not only does this seem like hard work, it also seems like I should have my whole book immediately at the skill-level I am at right now, rather than having to be fixed in post. Petty and useless whining on my part, of course, seeing as how the finished product will hopefully be up to snuff. It’s just that fear one faces when looking at work done a while back and suddenly they are horrified to find that they could ever be that bad of a writer. It’s at then that the writer must stay in his seat, strap on his seatbelt, and roll up his sleeves because he has a lot of work ahead of him, just different from the kind that he has done up to this point. However, this kind of writing seems to be something different that I might enjoy. What’s more, I would probably be able to do this writing at one point and then switch over and work on something new, since one is being written with the editor brain and the other with the artist brain. Hopefully this will dispel some of the unpleasantness of seeing my older work that isn’t as good as I’d like it to be.

Something for all you writers to remember and keep in your ears: if you’re reading something of yours that you wrote a while ago and it seems terrible, this is a GOOD THING. It means that your faculties haven’t failed you and that you still have a good sense of quality work, and what’s more, you have probably improved in your writing and recognition of what is good, which means that the next time you write something, it will be better than what you have in your hand. And what’s even more, you’ll probably be able to edit the piece you’re reading right now to a point where it is better. Or, you’ll be able to re-write the story, this time in a way that’s even more aligned with what you envisioned for it in the first place.

By now, I’ve rambled sufficiently about my worries, fears, and then my silver-lining I’ve found in my worries and fears about finishing my book. Hopefully this was entertaining or instructive or both. Neither would be unfortunate, but at times I’m not sure if I’m writing these posts more for myself or for others. Either way, I learn as I write and I hope something of consequence is gleaned after I’m done.

Cheers!

Dictionary Daily: Ken

This should have never been called “dictionary daily”–since my initial post about a word, I’m pretty sure I never did another. Anyway, I watched an episode of The Big Bang Theory and Sheldon tells Penny that she is “meddling with forces beyond her ken.” This line triggered something in my mind and brought to mind Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In that poem, the word “ken” is used here: “And through the drifts the snowy clifts/Did send a dismal sheen:/Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken -/ The ice was all between.” I love that section of the poem because Coleridge uses words that then might have been in use, but now are almost completely archaic. I see that a pattern having to do with my fascination involving archaic words. For those of you who do not know, the word “ken” is an archaic form of the word “knowledge” or “to know.” The use of this word is pretty versatile, as it functions as both a verb and noun.

Though I’ve already done one of these on another archaic word, I still find myself inspired to do another one, so it seems as if I’m drawn to this idea of the archaic word for more reasons than I can fathom. I can’t really hardly dredge up even one reason, so I put it to the analytical side of my brain. The idea that there are words that have now become archaic indicates that there were words more preferable to the ones that became outmoded and in this way we learned to picked and choose which words suited our ears best. Unless I’m missing some historical/anthropological link between this word and its origins that might explain its archaic nature, I’m just going to have to go with that. And since there seem to be words that were discarded by English-speaking peoples, I am forced to wonder if there are words we can bring back (cue the racism scene from Clerks 2)–could we somehow finds ways to resurrect words that have been trashed, is there a necessity to this, an inherent logic in making sure that no piece of our language get left behind? Maybe the idea that even a single piece of our language can become dead (or an entire language for that matter) is what really scares me the most and brings me to seek out these lonely words and reintroduce them to our lexicon. Cormac McCarthy does just that in Blood Meridian, using tons of archaic words and does amazing work with them, showing that even though words have been discarded, they will never lack their use if we have the desire to put them to it.

Fear and Loathing at the Writing Desk

Sometimes even I, after writing 2500 words in a night, come back to the words I wrote and wonder whether or not they are worth anything. At night, when in the throes of a writing streak, if I’m not careful, if I don’t separate one part of myself from the other, they begin to speak to one another, and the result is not pretty. It’s like allowing two of your ex-girlfriends to somehow meet with you in the room. Suddenly all your idiosyncrasies and tics and annoying habits and picadillos all come out and you find yourself in a severe state of self-loathing coupled with a bemused wonder at how you ever allowed those two parts of you to ever converge. This same thing happens when my pre-frontal cortex (or, as I like to call him, the fucking nag) somehow is allowed to interact with my right cerebral cortex–suddenly I suck at everything, this sentence is too long, that phrase is almost stock it’s so cliched. Why use that word? It’s totally redundant if you use a different word right in front of it, makes it way more concise. Why the hell would your character say that and on and on.

Doing the writing has always been for me a precarious balancing act and I’m sure it has for most people. However, I guess I find that the longer I do this thing, the easier it’s become for me to run along the gangplank which I happen to be on and not fall off into the abyss of self-doubt and hyper-editing (or worse, manuscript-burning). But, all the same, I can’t help wishing that I had a mentor. Not like the university teachers who helped us as much as they could (and some helped more than others). I keep going back to the things I read about DFW and Don DeLillo and I keep trying to find anything that they had written to each other. Wallace was in a real writerly existential crisis and he called out for help from one author who was already extremely well-established and who Wallace admired above many others. And that message in the bottle came back with more support than Wallace could have ever hoped for. I’m sure this encouragement and communication with someone who had been where Wallace had been and beyond helped Wallace summon the strength to finish Infinite Jest. I wish I had that. The feeling is even more acute today, where the Tin House Workshop is in its first full day (since it’s past midnight) which means that this year I am missing the thing that gave me such a kick in the ass, even kicking me right up out of a month-long depression that I had settled into since the very day I graduated. I feel lucky that my core group of support seems to be coming back together, if not slowly. I hope that by this time next year I will have a finely edited novel to shop around and to have work shopped. Some days it feels a long way off and other days it feels right around the corner. I just passed the climax of my novel and now it’s all over but the crying.

But after the crying comes the cutting–months and months of tearing down my work. And I’m sure everyone knows by now that that’s my least favorite part of the beast. Having said all that, I’m sure I would be freaking out far more if I didn’t know that I had at least three great readers who will give the best commentary possible once my book is finished. And they’ve done a great job not asking too much in the way of details from me since I’ve gotten on this kick of not giving away the fire too quickly and letting it stew. I think above all the thing that I fear is that the book will be a failure–something completely devoid of empathy and sincerity and that I will have poured all this into something that can not and never did hold water at all. I think the mentor thing would be of most use here, where you can only ask advice of someone who has already been in the throes of what you’re experiencing, has transcended it, and will be able to confidently tell you it’s going to be okay and that it will pass. As I say this, I see a link between myself and a drug addict in need of a sponsor–someone who’s been through it, who knows what it’s like, and to tell you it will pass and it gets better. “Hello, my name is Ry and I am a writer.” This seems like it could become quite a one-sided relationship, this sponsor or mentor, something along the lines of the Wallace story, “The Depressed Person” where someone calls a friend just to pour out all her insecurities and apologies and not good enoughs, which only serve to make her more alienated from her friends than if she just kept her shit to herself. Hopefully if I ever do get the balls to send that message out in the bottle, there will be someone on the other shore kind enough to talk me down, slap me in the face, and hand me a glass of whiskey and, having done all that, tell me to get back to work. And maybe to tell me that he (or she) believes in me. Or maybe more importantly, to tell me to believe in myself.

As I think about this idea of belief in oneself, I begin to realize that our insecurities are some of our greatest strengths. What do we talk about in our writing? I don’t talk about how fucking smart I am, or how much I’ve read and I’m sure you don’t either. We talk about how we hate the shapes of our noses, how we don’t want to fail–we express that in our writing–or at least I hope we do. Because that’s honest. That’s real. Speaking about our strengths, in an odd way, serves to alienate us from our readers, but when discussing or addressing our weaknesses, everyone is on board with it. I have to remember that and I hope you do, too. If something seems to be getting too close to you, don’t hold it at arm’s length–bring it closer, even close enough that you transcend the line of indecency. You can always go back to it later and make it less so. But I think we never know how far it is necessary to go until we go farther than we feel comfortable, then turn to look back.

For my closest writer friends, I hope this has been entertaining and maybe a little bit of an ah-ha! trigger. If not, hopefully it at least didn’t bore you to tears. For all the other folks who sometimes drop by my blog, I hope you enjoyed it too.

“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
-Goethe