Writing Workshops As DDX and Introspection

DDX: -n.- (DEE-DEE-ECKS): A differential diagnosis; a systematic diagnostic method used to identify the presence of an entity where multiple alternatives are possible (and the process may be termed differential diagnostic procedure), and may also refer to any of the included candidate alternatives (which may also be termed candidate condition).

So first of all, why the hell did I decide to do this? And why did I start the way I did? Well, on one hand I just rediscovered my love for the television show House, M.D.–and on the other hand, I just love acronyms. Second on my list of reasons is that sometimes I get really super dry on these kinds of craft talks. So to have a little fun, I started by having fun. Kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?

In the world of writing, we are continually asked if it’s possible to teach writing. Many lines are drawn in the sand, so much so to the point that any chance of clarity is eliminated. The best answer I ever heard to that question was that we can teach people what to avoid and what the tools of writing are, but to teach someone to love creating and to stick with it is another matter. I tacked on the depending clause of that statement because I believe it to be true. We can’t teach half of the equation, but with help and especially the process of the workshop, it is absolutely possible to teach the other half.

Now, how to teach writing. This is different-chromatic horse altogether due to the simple fact that pedagogy (the way that teaching should be done) is something that every specialized teacher has a unique viewpoint on. No two teachers agree on the correct way to teach a subject. So how hard is it going to be for not only teachers to agree on, but for a group of teachers who are teaching a subject that half of the practicioners of said subject doubt that it even can be taught? Fucking hell. I think I gave myself a headache with that sentence. But really, how are we to teach a subject that for the sake of argument might not be able to be taught? The answer, I believe, lies in something the awesome Steve Almond said about teaching writing. He said, “Young writers aren’t going to be able to learn to write from reading writers who are already published, because they will already have edited out all their mistakes before publishing. You don’t learn writing as well from seeing things done well as you do from seeing things done wrong. Which means that the greatest well of information for young writers lies in themselves and their contemporaries. Reading the mistakes of your fellow writers will teach you all you need to know.” This is where the workshop comes in.

Above all else, the workshop should be a place where writers bring their best work to a group of contemporary writers and receive feedback on it. This seems like a simple enough process, doesn’t it? If no, you’re right and if yes, you’re right—in a way. The problem with writing workshops is that you have people from any and all numbers of experiences, both in workshops and in writing and people’s responses to their writing—not to mention, different personality types and all different kinds of dynamics within the group. Some people just may not be comfortable in such an environment. This comfort, this trust, is the key ingredient of what makes a workshop. But there’s one more leg on this particular stool, and that leg is focus. A workshop has to have focus if it is to be run optimally, I think. An example. Writer A comes into the workshop with his best stuff and hands it out. Writers B-Z read the story, some read it twice, others go above and beyond and read it three or more times. You love those readers. But anyway, writers A-Z come back to class a couple days later and the discussion begins. The instructor opens the discussion with something like “What did everyone think of the point of view?” Writer A sits quietly and listens while writer B says, “I think it was a good perspective to have because of X reason.” Writer C pipes up and says, “Yeah, it heightens the experience of blah blah blah.” Both perfectly acceptable comments. Then quiet. Then the instructor says, “What did everyone think of the characters?” Writer D then says, “I thought main character was a dick. I didn’t like him.” The discussion suddenly comes to a screeching halt. A number of questions come to mind: What’s your problem? Who says the character needs or should be liked? Who cares? The screeching halt came when Writer D offered a comment that didn’t do something that all DDX’s do—they diagnose a problem and offer a prognosis and treatment. The main thing a workshop has to do is the same thing doctors do when they diagnose a disease. They identify the problems of whatever is in question and offer solutions. Workshops need to present where they encountered problems with the manuscript and provide evidence for the problem’s existence, in order to show Writer A examples of his missteps. Otherwise he will dismiss them rightfully out of hand as just a pet peeve of the workshop member’s—not something he actually has to fix in order to eliminate confusion or make the story better in any number of ways. Ultimately the choice is up to the writer, but if Writers B,C, and E agree very strongly on a problem that Writer E brings up with the manuscript and they each present a different solution to the problem, Writer A should both remember that particular problem and also jot down the possible solutions. Writer A may not end up using any of the proffered solutions at all, instead going his complete individual way in addressing the problem—the point was to identify a problem and show that there are ways to solve it.

In order to get this idea on the rails, there has to be a tremendous amount of consistency—not just on the parts of the students who get to do lots of the talking—but on the part of the instructor as well. And though not every creative writing teachers is absolutely fabulous, they have to be able to keep that one goal of the workshop in mind in order for it to function as it should. Every question or comment should be through the lenses of giving compliments (these are necessary as well) or identifying problems with the story and ways to fix it. If an instructor would announce that as one of the lone course goals, I believe it would be far easier to make the workshop function the way it should, because instead of having to contend with personality differences and group dynamics etc. it is only the student and instructor’s job to identify problem passages and offer solutions and for the writer whose work is being critiqued to simply listen and take notes on the ideas that are being given.

One last note on the workshop in general and on really unhelpful suggestions in particular. There are always a few members of a workshop who come at it from this angle of saying what they feel about the piece and going no further. It may be laziness or it may just be an inability to see how comments like these are unhelpful. Either way, it is possible for these members of the workshop to improve their workshopping technique with the help of the other students and the instructor. The phrase, “I thought the main character was a dick,” by itself is an extremely unhelpful comment—but with the help of the newly identified focus of the class, that comment can go from that to something like, “I thought the main character was a dick because of Example A, B, and C and I think if that’s what you intended, then you’re doing great. If not, which is what I think you were going for, you could stand to make him a little more likeable. For example, in this situation with main character, have him do this instead of that. It wouldn’t hurt the story and main character comes off looking like less of a dick.” How much more helpful did that just get because of the focus of the class? Immensely. And in order for this to happen, the consistence will have to be there, both with the other students and the instructor. The teacher will most likely have to be the one who cuts off an inappropriate remark with a question about evidence for the statement and a question as to how it can be fixed. When it comes down to it, we are not only supposed to diagnose the problems of the story and provide solutions for it; we are supposed to perform a diagnosis of our own feelings toward the story and thus bring out arguments for where there must be change and how it should be done. This way our feelings are not only our feelings, but they are our path into the piece itself and following that path and studying it, we are able to help fix the innerworkings of the piece and to do a better job of understanding the innerworkings of ourselves.

Taking Off The Mask

There is a part of me that I don’t think anyone will ever like. I don’t only think it, actually. I know it. Because I’ve played that part in public before. I’ve acted it out, cloaked myself in it, and let people know that was who I was. No one liked it. Or almost no one. Most likely it was because of who I am and who I’m not. That part of me that I used to play was someone I’m not particularly fond of now, especially after I’ve spent years covering him up, seeing how people react to him and how he could have thought about things differently. When I was a teenager, I listened to all the depressing music that people association with not unintelligent, independent, non-conformist teenagers. The works. I said and read and posted and lived really depressing mantras. And you know what? No one really much liked me when I did that.  I’ve heard it said that moody introspection only works if you’re considerably taller and are able to play the guitar. And that pretty much hit the nail on the head for how well people responded to the person I was purporting myself to be. It was somewhat an act, because there were other facets to my personality, too. But the glaring thing was that part of me. So I changed it. Not quickly and not easily, but I realized that people liked being around me when I would laugh and joke and keep away from really depressing statements. I made that who I was. And for the most part, I’m still that person. But the mask I wear to appear appealing to others has that part removed from it.

Here’s the part where I actually talk about writing and not just myself. Ask any writer how it feels to have someone read their work. Go ahead, ask them. You will probably get an answer somewhere along the lines of a feeling of mingled shame and hope and somewhere around there, embarrassment–with maybe a dash of pride mixed in. More emotions than that are combined in that experience, but to go any farther into that rabbit hole would risk a loss of focus on my part. It is hard to ask anyone to read one’s work and even harder to actually get anyone to read one’s work. For after you’ve gotten the person to say the word “Yes” they still have to sit down and actually read the damn thing.

But now after beating around the bush for a while, I come to the point I want to make. Have you ever had someone read your writing in front of you? Like while you’re standing/sitting still while they actually read the words you put down in a private place somewhere, unsure anyone in the world would ever actually see it? It is nothing short of horrifying. The simple act of watching someone run their eyes over something from inside you is almost painful it’s so embarrassing. That’s an interesting word, by the way, isn’t it? “Embarrassing.” Em-bare-ass-ing. That’s like saying something goes through the process of making you bareassed. But why is this so embarrassing? Why does it make us feel like we’re back in that dream where we show up to school naked? I have a theory and it relates to that part of me that I know no one will ever like. That part I’ve tried so hard to hide, that part of me that is expressed and given a voice in my dreams where I show up to school naked. And it relates to that part of me that I put down on paper when I write.

My writing, my stuff, my work, whatever I happen to be calling it at the moment is a direct result of putting that part of myself that no one likes on paper. It’s the time where I’m able to take off that mask that I’ve been putting on for necessity of survival and to avoid looking like a huge fucking tool. From my other essay about writing as looking inward to reach out, it’s a bit obvious and hopefully you maybe read that one before reading this one. If not, that’s fine; if so, wonderful. And but so when putting down on paper that part of yourself that has not been given any air, any light, any say for so long except maybe from time to time in the music you listen to, in the books you read, the films you watch, you are giving voice to something that has long been ignored and left on its own–more importantly, you recognize how important and integral this part of you is, even if no one ever seems to respond to it in person. But these ways to get it out are passive, not the same as bringing that part out actively. That is where writing comes in for me. Writing is an act of taking off the mask. You finally free yourself from that wall that you put up between yourself and the world around you. The cruel irony is that often the part of yourself you put down in your work that no one responds to in real life is the very part that people respond to the most in your work. How does this happen, where when you bare your soul in person someone feels like you’re being indecent, but then when you are completely maskless in your work you are praised? Does honesty hold no weight in person? Because it definitely does in art. Art is your moment for honesty. And so isn’t it a little nerve-wracking when someone witnesses that part of yourself that you had vowed to relegate to the dungeons of your soul? At least when in the presence of others, lest you completely turn them off with your honesty and self-obsession? It is as if you went around your whole life with a mask on your face and then one day took a picture of yourself without the mask on, and then you proceeded to show that picture to someone while standing in front of them wearing your mask. Can you imagine what kind of horrors and embarassments and wild possibilities would run through you at that point? It’s probably one of the most conflicting and uncomfortable positions I’ve ever been in, to be honest.   And isn’t that both a little sad and a little admirable that people have this kind of conflict about showing that part of themselves? It’s a little sad in that we are told never to give a shit what people think about us and to do what we want because we want to and so it’s an acknowledgement of the outside world’s effect on us. But it’s also admirable in the sense that we know this part of ourselves has never been well-liked and we may even be ridiculed for it–but at least we are facing that fear in order to say something about ourselves and about everything and anything on this big spinning ball of rock. For all I know lawyers might relate everything in the world to law and doctors to medicine–what I know about is writing and so the filter that all information goes through first is the filter of writing. And it’s this filter that has allowed me to take off the mask that I oblige myself to wear every day. And for that, I’m eternally grateful.

Thanks for reading. I hope you liked it!

Writing as Looking Inward To Reach Out

So. This is the third or fourth essay on craft that I’ve written in a relatively short period of time. It may seem weird, I guess, since I’ve only had one story published to be having such firmly put ideas about what writing is and what it should be. But I guess this is a way for me to continually re-evaluate what writing is for me. And I hope that by doing this, I’ll be able to shed some light on it for others. Until I had written the essays, I really had no idea that I believed all these things about writing until I had finally written them down. I’ve been thinking about writing a lot, especially the purpose of it, or our motivations for it and lately I’ve come to the decision that it’s both very simple and very complicated. The reasoning I ran into while trying to wheedle out why we do what we do was ultimately ouroborous-like in nature. Once I had reached the end I had simply found that I had reached the beginning. When someone is foolhardy or sincere enough (not mutually exclusive) to actually ask the question of why one writes, he will invariably be given a list at once pretentious, sincere, ironic, and flippant by getting all different sorts of answers. This is to be expected, especially when considering what a diverse group of people can be found in a writing workshop. This particular question, I believe, is a twin, a mirror of the question, “What do you owe your audience and who do you believe that to be?” These two questions are at the top of a hierarchy of questions that are both posed to writers by others and that writers pose to themselves in quiet moments before, after, or even during the writing process. The reason these two questions are so important is the fact that they’re two separate sides of the same coin that may reveal the real purpose behind writing. By figuring one out, we can flip the formula and figure the second out.

The first question, why we write, is just almost too overwhelming and multi-faceted to even begin to wrap our heads around. For example, every writer probably has a different reason and most likely will have a host of different reasons all in descending order in his head–some reasons may be more powerful for others–but the first thing that happens with every writer occurs by himself with a blank page. I think that’s the first thing to consider. Before asking anyone’s permission to write, before we say that we wrote a story, before we say that we like writing, we first encounter the blank page and we learn the pleasure that it is to un-blank it. To fill it in, to decrease the negative space of that blank page. When we fill this negative space, we do so with things dredged up from within us. Each word is something we feel, think, wonder, posit, and on and on. And seeing this page become filled, in a way, legitimizes what we have felt and provides a way for us to look at ourselves in a new way, in a safe light that is free from judgment or from the fingerprints of anyone else in the world. This document and every one after it we create is, in a way, a piece of the last untouched soil in the world. The blank spaces on the map have been filled in, there are no more horizons to expand or explore, except for the ones that no one else can touch–until we let them. That’s step one. I believe, in a way, that’s why we write. We write to look inward. To bring the most honest parts of us to the surface and to fix them there and hold them up as artifacts of what we believe and who we are and what we value.

And so we then move on to the idea of what reader comes into our minds when we are working on our artifacts that we have dredged up from within. Normally, the answer that is given is usually along the lines of “someone who likes the same kind of works as me”. This probably isn’t too far from the truth, and yet, when we’re honest with ourselves, (literary writers, at least) we are usually meaning that the readers we imagine we are writing for are other versions of our very best selves. What I mean by this is that when writers put something down and before asking anyone else to read it, they decide that it’s good without asking for a second pair of eyes. They do it with only the judgment within themselves that the piece before them is up to their standards of what is good and that if they were the reader of the piece, they would find it worthy of their time and effort. And so if we writers are writing and judging a piece ourselves, where does the actual reader come in? Why is he necessary? Is he necessary? What responsibility does a writer have to the reader? I believe that where the reader comes in is right there—when the work is ready to be read, not only by the writer himself or his close friends, but by the public at large. When the writer’s book goes out into the world, the writer has essentially polished that original artifact from within and made it as perfect as it was possible to make it. Now, given that the writer has given this to the reader in order to make of it what he will, the question must be asked as to what the writer expects from the reader, which I believe to be the real question, or even what the asker of the question actually means when he asks what the writer’s ideal reader is, which is “what does the writer expect from his reader?” I believe that the writer expects the reader to be someone who is willing to put aside a great deal of time in order to read what he has written and to make a sizable effort in order to ascertain what it was the writer was trying to say with this piece of himself. Now, in order for this to occur, the writer must ascertain what it is he owes to the reader. This is, I think, ultimately the most important question regarding the writer/reader relationship. The writer has to determine what responsibility he has to his ideal reader. It is in this final decision the writer makes that determines how his writing will be seen—the object of writing as I see it, the purpose of it is to look inward to reach out. The whole act of writing is an act of introspection. In writing, we hold up that piece of ourselves to the reader and it is in that last holding up that we reach outward, letting the reader be the judge of that piece of ourselves we hold most dear, most secret, most sacred. And that is what the writer owes to the reader. The writer’s responsibility to the reader is to make that piece of himself that he has put into his book to be the truest, most honest piece of himself he can dredge up. No more, no less. The writer should not be glib, should not be flippant, should not be egotistical in his writing—he must write as if talking to a lover, as if talking to a best friend, as if talking to himself.

This was probably way too long of an essay in order to explore this pretty simple concept, but I’ve spent way too many nights and moments before, between, and after writing solely to contemplate this issue. After reading interview upon interview with authors in which the author is asked about his audience as well as the reason behind his writing, I think I actually came to a conclusion about how one can answer one question in order to get to the answer for the other.

Dictionary Daily: Zephyr

Okay, so lately while reading Infinite Jest for the second time, I suddenly happened upon a word that I haven’t thought of for a long time: zephyr. And seeing as how I haven’t done one of these dictionary daily things in forever and I love me some archaic words, as we probably all know after reading my other D.D. posts, I decided I’d do a little riff on the word zephyr.

I think I first encountered this word in college when reading the poetry of the Romantics. I was confused as to what the hell a Zephyr was–sounded liked some fake mythical animal or something that had the head of a zebra and the body of a fir tree or some crazy shit. I wasn’t too far wrong. The word’s origin is mythological in nature. In Greek Mythology, Zephyrus was the name given to the personification of the West Wind, so said to be the most favorable of all the directional winds, in addition to being the bringer of light spring and early summer breezes. If this wasn’t cool enough, authors as distinguished as Chaucer and Shakespeare have used Zephyrus or just plain “zephyrs” to refer to wind. In fact, it may even be Shakespeare himself in Cymbeline who is the first author to refer to a light, pleasant wind as a “zephyr”– “They are as gentle as zephyrs blowing the violet, not wagging his sweet head.” Yes, I got lots of this from wikipedia, but now it’s in my head and will likely never leave. I just liked the idea that these two giants of the early canon both had a hand in Zephyrus becoming zephyr.

Though zephyr is a word still used today, it is semi-archaic, now being surpassed in favorability by words like breeze and the like.  I think the reason that this word still has some sort of effect on me is that I love how the word is not only a descriptor, but it goes beyond description and becomes representative of  wind. In essence, the word zephyr is also an onomatopoeia.  The word zephyr itself sounds like a whishing wind (whishing also being an onomatopoeia–love that word as well, better make a note). Zephyr can also be used in the adjectival sense and even awkwardly in verb-form if the writer is so inclined, but the true beauty of the word lies in the combination of the relationship between sound and meaning, the capturing almost completely the thing that is supposed to be meant by the word itself. The best comparison I can make when making this point is by saying that Shakespeare might have been correct when he said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I think he would have been wrong if he had used the word zephyr in his quote. No other word for a light wind would be as perfect as zephyr–though breeze is a convenient and newly developed synonym for wind, the handful of breaths and wind-like sounds in zephyr make breeze no match for zephyr in the battle for being le mot juste–just the right word. So after my pretentious post, I will remove my head from my ass and exclaim to the poets, “BRING BACK THE ZEPHYR!” Thank you to all those who listen!

Writing to Become the Iron Horse: Writing as Streak

Disclaimer: This is meant to be an illumination of one way I have found to make writing work. For me. I do not recommend this as a fail-safe measure of writing.

On September 6, 1995, something happened that no one in the world of baseball ever thought possible. A player surpassed Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 baseball games consecutively spent on the starting lineup. The Iron Horse’s (Lou Gehrig’s) record had stood for 56 years. The night Cal Ripken Jr. broke the consecutive started games record, there came a new standard in the universe of baseball. Though it was one game difference, it still meant that a new requisite level of commitment and work was instilled that night. 2130 was no longer enough. After that day, Ripken played 502 more games in a row beyond that. Finally, at 2632 games played consecutively, Cal Ripken Jr. voluntarily ended his streak. This is sometimes referred to as the streak that saved baseball.  At the time of the record-breaking, there was a Sports Illustrated cover with Ripken on the front. The legend in big, block letters read: The New Iron Horse. Ripken had become the new symbol for hard work and determination in the collective baseball memory. This anecdote will serve as the central concept and in a way, metaphor of my essay.

The summer after eighth grade, I was wondering what sports or extracurricular activities I would be able to do well. At that time, I was 5’3 or 5’4 and about 115 pounds, if you can believe that, so football (American) was pretty much out and since I was from a town in Washington state that was a dead ringer for a 50 years advanced Yoknapatawpha setting, soccer was out as well. So one morning before it got really hot, my dad suggested we go out for a run together. I said okay. Though I had never run before except in quick bursts, I realized that I liked it–it was something I could do and it felt like a kind of perverse pleasure to put yourself through that when the only prize you might get was a blister or beating someone in a race who you had lost to in the previous one. In a best-case scenario, you simply found out how much pain you could take before you cracked. So I started running. I took weekends off and during the summer I slept in. Running was painful, almost a punishment, but I kept doing it. Dragging myself out of bed or off the couch to go run seemed like a chore. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I should.  But then Cross-Country season came. At that point, I became sucked into the culture–suddenly you were talking about people like Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter and Billy Mills as if they were Jesus or the Dali Lama or (as crazy as we seemed) maybe even Jeremiah Smith or L. Ron Hubbard. And eventually, I stopped taking days off. It got to the point where I was proud of my streak and hated the thought of giving it up and every day I almost didn’t run and the sun had gone down and it was a couple hours away from bed-time, I’d get an itch I couldn’t scratch. I kept thinking about how I hadn’t run that day. How I would lose something, even if just a little, if I didn’t run. So I’d get up and run, both because I wanted to and because I needed to. Though I’m not saying that my streak was anywhere comparable to Cal Ripken Jr.’s. But I am saying that there seems to be a link between the length of time doing something and pride and thus a renewed urge and drive to keep that streak going. I’m sure you’ve heard of insufferable people celebrating their year’s worth of relationship or marriage. The same basic principle applies, only to run or write every day is even more easy to accomplish, as the only person you have to contend with is yourself and the only needs and wants you have to accommodate are your own. Do you want to write? Do you need to write? Then write.

I seem to have been obsessed with the idea of work as of late. I think it’s because after fighting for so long with the notion of work and writing every day, I’ve had a minor breakthrough with finishing my novel. In the last two weeks or so, I made a promise to myself that I would not go to bed every day until I wrote at least 2,000 words. I kept that promise. Then I did the math. My book is 105,000 words long. If I had wrote 2,000 words a day for the entirety of the time I was writing my book, it would have taken me less than two months to write the entirety of that book instead of the eight months it ended up taking me. Though that’s the straight math, there is no way I would have been able to write 2,000 words every day at the beginning of the book, simply because I was still figuring the characters out as I wrote the first part of the story. As I learned about the characters and realized what they would do in a certain situation and began thinking ahead of the story itself, I was able to write more words in less time. Though I was able to figure out my characters by taking my time, I still believe I would have been able to do it sooner if I had at least committed to writing something every day at the beginning of my book. The simple act of sitting down and writing put me in a place where I could think about what I was to do with the book even after I had stopped writing. I wrote in short bursts, inspiration-driven hazes most of the time. Which is okay, but it’s not a substitute for work, sitting down each day to do it. One of my friends, who is a poet, responded when I said these things with this quote. “Yeah, but you finished it. Everyone starts a book. Writers finish books.”

This quote both made me feel good and made me commit myself once again to my streak. Now that I have a novel to edit, I put it in the drawer for a while—I’m not sure yet about how long it will sit there. Until I no longer feel tied to it, I suppose, so that I can objectively gauge the work of it. While the book sits there I have devoted myself to continuing the streak, so while my book sits, I have decided to work on story after story until I start editing my book. And even while I edit, I’ll still be working on more stories. Because I’ve come to realize that with every single day of work I put in, my gauge of talent goes up just a little bit and I’m able to sustain a higher level of good writing the more I do it. I am more conscious of what I’m doing with every word I write. It’s a little like juggling. First, as a beginning writer, I could only juggle with one ball and sometimes I’d drop that. Then I’d be able to work sometimes with two juggling sacks—now I feel like I’ve progressed to sometimes being able to be conscious of doing three things at once with my writing. I feel like my writing is branching out and reaching in directions I didn’t know it could. Only one word can really describe it: exhilaration.

So, as a final word, I guess I’ll say that I know how hard it is to work on your writing day in and day out. And I know how easy it sounds coming from someone who has finally seemingly broken through that barrier of needing to remind myself to write everything and becoming the person who has made writing every day a habit. I hope there were some posts made on here previously that showed my difficulty in writing every day. I’m not sure if there are, but I know I had those difficulties. Everyone does when they begin to write. And some people may never get over those difficulties and must find different methods of writing in order to get over this. But for the most part, if you can, I encourage you to start trying to write every day. Even if at the beginning it becomes a sentence or two. If you can’t get farther than that, don’t force it. But the longer you do it, the more accustomed you should become to having to be prepared to write that day. And hopefully after long enough your streak will then evolve from something you have to remind yourself to do, like an errand or chore and into something like a habit, something that if you haven’t done it, actually gnaws at you and you are coerced to write in order to soothe your conscience. You actually feel better about writing because it alleviates a strange sort of guilt. This probably sounds a bit fucked up, and right you are. But ask yourself if you’d rather feel worse about writing or worse about not writing. This is the method I’ve found that helps me most with my writing. Hopefully it made sense and will help you out with your writing.

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.

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.