Friday, December 16, 2011

Finding Your Writing Voice

If I could give one gift to every writer I know, it would be a workshop with Jack Grapes. I can't, because writing workshops aren't cheap (though his are worth every penny and more) and I’m still saving up for my next one. So, you all are on your own.

In his Method Writing class, Jack has two fundamental rules:
  1. Write like you talk.
  2. Do the exercise.
Every day, open your journal, follow the instructions for that week’s exercise, write like you talk, and stop after 2 pages. Period. If you write crap, it won’t matter, because you were practicing a technique, not going after a Pulitzer. Through practice and process, you will find a product... eventually.
A Moment of Glory

Jack has an exercise for extending psychological time in a moment of tension, which he calls image/moment. The first week he assigned it, my husband was having a horrible time at work and the kids were needy and exhausting. I was too tired to think of anything interesting, but I did the exercise anyway.

I wrote about running in the rain at night, while listening to rock music about sex and drugs and other facets of the fast life I've never sampled. I wrote about the freedom that comes from being out on an empty street alone after dark. I wrote about coming home to find my stressed-out husband asleep in a lump on the bed when it wasn't even 9 yet, and about the moment I wished I could go back outside and run away from real life, but instead I turned off my iPod and did the dishes.

I did not use a single word that my second grader wouldn't know how to spell. There was not a single sentence I thought was beautiful. Reading it for the class, I fought not to cry, partly from the sadness I'd felt the night I wrote it and partly from embarrassment at exposing such a raw part of my life.

I finished, tear-free, and Jack said, “Raise your hand if you know how good that was.”

The whole class raised their hands. How much was peer pressure, I'll never know, but the response was positive.

Jack went on: “And do you know why it was so good? It’s not because Sarah’s a good writer.”

(I knew it! He never liked me...) It didn't matter. I was pleased as punch. Surely at least some of it was my writing. Right?

“It’s because she did the exercise,” he said. “She used the technique, she followed the instructions, and the result was powerful.”

Well, yes, okay. But I wanted to believe it was because I was a good writer. I really, really did.

The next week we repeated the same exercise. I was nervous. I needed to WOW the crowd. I needed to top what I did before. I wrote about an edgier topic, I was clever, and I edited until every word sang for me.

The group's reaction? “Meh.”

Hey, Macarena!

I never wrote another piece that was as noticed and remembered by my classmates as the running one. At our end-of-class party, everyone brought it up. I understood how Los Del Rio must feel when people start doing the Macarena.

They are crying on the inside. (From
Two years later, I ran into a classmate I idolized. He was an accomplished screenwriter, and everything he wrote was effortlessly funny and poignant and brilliant.

He was with his wife, and I was with my husband. I introduced him, but he didn’t remember my name. (That’s okay. He’s a big deal. I’m a little deal.)

He turned to his wife and said, “She wrote that thing I told you about, remember? The one where she was running, and her husband was in bed, and his socks were on the floor?”

His wife smiled. “Oh, yes, I do remember.”

Oh my golly gosh they talked about me!?! My insides went smooshy.

Enter, stage left... Mixed Feelings:
  • Positive: WOW, big-time screenwriter and king of cool remembered something I wrote and TOLD HIS WIFE about it!
  • Negative: He doesn't remember a single other thing about me. 
I could tell you almost everything this guy read for the class, because it was ALL memorable.

The Answer to All Life's Questions, Except the Ones that Aren't Answered Here:

I re-read my one-hit wonder a while ago, expecting to be floored by my own brilliance. And... Not so much. It needs tightening. It wanders. Some lines are redundant, some flabby.

What was the magic, if it wasn't my talent? Jack was right - almost. The exercise was the core of what worked. But I did the exercise the next week, too, without the same result.

Years later, I think I know the answer. My writing was honest. It was pure, unadulterated truth. It was me, writing in the voice I’d use to talk to a friend, and not holding anything back. Not covering up a feeling with a clever turn of phrase. Just laying it out there.

Poetry and memoir have taught me the power of truth, but I struggle with how to apply it in fiction. After all, a novel is just lies I've made up about people who don't exist. That makes honesty hard to measure... but not impossible. Even in fiction, some lines have a ring of truth to them, and some don’t.

Often, as writers, we can’t hear when we are most honest and when we are writing what we want to sound like, instead of who we really are. The reader always knows. Listen to your feedback, listen to your heart, and be simple. Be honest. That’s how you write something that no one else can imitate, that makes readers fall in love. That's how you find your voice.


Edited: If Jack read this, I believe he would point out that everything I said about voice actually falls under Rule #1: Write like you talk. Which went hand in hand with doing the exercise. Which means Jack was, in fact, 100% right. He always is. I can't even win an argument with that man in my head.


  1. Your voice shines through in this post as well.

    I always hear the voice and honesty in all your posts, that's what makes them all so awesome.

    Thanks for sharing. I really needed to hear this. :)

  2. That was beautifully written. Thank you for sharing that.

  3. I like you, Sarah. I love the reminder to just get out of your own way and tell the honest story.

    By the by, whenever I dance the Macarena, I die a little on the inside.

  4. Even the summary of the story made me a little teary. It might be the cold medicine, but not all of it.

    It's definitely a good reminder to have, to not over-edit our voice out of the story. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a story critique was along those lines: he thought the story felt over-edited, so he urged me to write it again from scratch, to play the scene out in my head again and see how it came out differently the second time. And, of course, it worked.

  5. Thanks for the kind comments, everyone. Sheena, I have never danced the Macarena. Is it too late? :)

  6. I always look forward to your posts. This one is no different. Excellent.


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