How do you learn to know your voice? How can you find the connection points in your life and yourself, and know when you’re really connecting to the stories you’re meant to tell?
I teach voice a lot, and I love that moment when a light comes on for a writer, when their eyes show that slight shock, sometimes a distinct discomfort. I love it when I feel it myself, too, that sharp, intense feeling of connection.
Often, I’ve said to you here that I believe you were meant to be a writer. You wouldn’t be pursuing this difficult and challenging work if there were some way you could get out of it. I strongly believe you were meant to tell your own, particular, unique, individual, only-you-can-tell-them stories.
How do you know what those are? How can you see your own voice? One way is to look back at the journey you’ve taken in your writing so far. What are your favorite bits of writing? What are your best? Don’t just look at published or polished work. Take a wander backward and see what you see in your whole body of work.
The best way I can illuminate that path is to share some points in mine.
Even as a small child, I made up story-songs, and spun stories to myself, but the first thing I remember writing that really connected was in the fifth grade. A very short story about an old man dying on his birthday, and his regret over his relationship with his son. It contains a detail about flies, buzzing too lazily in the heat to even move off a ledge, which I took out of my own life, a very uncomfortable sad moment when my dad’s dad came to see us and I was alone in the house. I had no idea what to say to him so I sort of skulked around, peeking at him on the patio. He stood there with his hands in his pockets, tall and white haired, staring out at something in the distance. We were strangers to each other, even though we lived in the same town. Eventually, he left, and I felt both relieved and embarrassed. The story emerged from my discomfort.
That was the first time I really connected to the page. As a mature writer, I can see that sorrow and regret, missed chances and wrong turns are all over my work. I write about pretty ordinary people trying to find their places in the world, find their work, falling in love and falling out of love and trying to find their way. I love a little magic and lots of music. I tend to write about mixed cultures because that has been my life.
But as a young writer, trying to figure out what to do with my work, with this passion, it wasn’t as easy to see where I was going. When I decided to try to really write fiction, really try to make a go of it, I was 24 or maybe 25. I’d written about five novels, countless short stories, and had accumulated a fair number of rejections from magazines on my short stories. Then I’d gone to college to study journalism, where I found professors and peers who were very supportive. I wrote features and columns for the school paper, and I got a lot of reinforcement for the work.
I loved the attention! I wanted it on me all the time! I loved making people cry. I loved wading into big controversies and knowing the right people and having enough background to write the story well.
But at 24, or maybe it was 25, I wanted to try to make my fiction work. I was flailing around a lot, writing all kinds of things, not sure what I was supposed to write. I couldn’t hear my own voice yet.
Everything I read said you should write about what you know, and I looked at all of it. I was married to an African-American man, and we joked that we were both first-generation Southerners. I had a couple of little boys, and we lived in a Latino-Italian town. My own background was as ordinary a white working class world as you could imagine, and I was really kind of embarrassed about that. My dad ate baloney sandwiches with mustard. Who wanted to read about those kinds of roots? Why would I want to spend my time there?
I thrashed around with various stabs at stories. I had some great rejections, personal letters from editors, even from a few glossies, but…
One night, my kids had been a pain all day and I was exhausted and it was too hot to sleep and I just sat down at my kitchen table and wrote a story that had been rolling around in my brain. It was a story that came out of nowhere, about a woman I’d once seen in a kind of seedy club years before.
It was a very dark piece, about an aging prostitute in love with a broken gangster on a downward slide. He’s her boyfriend’s best friend (forbidden love, my old friend!) and she finds him in a bad situation and rescues him. They have sex and it’s sad and piercing, and she really does love him, but he’s just way too far gone. I wrote it in a white hot heat, all of a piece.
I knew when I finished that it was really, really good. I just felt the difference. I could really hear my voice in it. Like the story about the old man, it was full of regret and lost chances and redemption. It was about all the terrible fears we feel about not being lovable and how love can make things feel better, even for a little while, and I got it. It was electrifying.
I had more great feedback on that story than I’d had on anything to that point, and came within a hair of selling it to a very prestigious literary journal. It never sold–and honestly, I needed to make money, so that literary route wasn’t going to work for me anyway. But I took that kernel of what I’d learned, that I liked writing about love between unlikely people, and regret, and hope, I wrote a straight romance, trying to figure out how to fit those pieces together.
It was rejected, but at a very high level. High enough that I felt sure I could figure this out….but, wow. Things were getting pretty hard.
No one cares if you want to be an artist. We were a young family, struggling to make ends meet in a city that was economically crashing in the wake of the steel mill crashes. We didn’t even have a phone. I took a job with a friend of my father’s, who ran a 12-lane-bowling alley in the shadow of the steel mill.
It was a god-awful job, the worst I ever had, but I could work around my kids, and even bring them to work if I needed to. And I fell in love with everyone there. The humans. Pueblo, really. I was enchanted by the legends they told me, and by the old Italian men who smelled so good and still flirted so elegantly at age seventy. I fell in love with working class people who accepted me completely into their world, and let me be a part of them (all of which shows up later in my book No Place Like Home.)
They loved me. They were good to me. They saved up jokes totell the little bartender who got the grilled onions just right on their burgers. (I still have a large, dark scar on my right hand from the fryolater.)
So I wrote a romance novel about a woman who was writing a sonata to the rise and fall of the steel mill. The hero was a Vietnam vet (yes, it was a long time ago) who limped (and smoked!). She had lost her husband to suicide. He was a writer who took refuge in history. It was a romance, but it was about Pueblo and working class people and finding home.
I would go in early to work to write it, to have that little extra hour to write. And the people worried about me having such big dreams. They worried and worried. They didn’t want me to get my heart broken. They thought I was such a good person and they liked me and they wanted me to be happy, and to be a writer was so big a thing to want. Too big.
That was a turbulent period in our lives. One of our college friends was murdered. I remember stumbling into work after the funeral feeling like I’d gone to another world. My younger son had the chicken pox so badly that he nearly died. (I didn’t even know people could die of chicken pox.) And through all of this, I kept telling my husband to believe in me a little bit longer. Just a little longer. I kept writing anyway.
That little book about the sonata to the steel mill sold, and honestly, I knew that it would from the moment it started hitting the page. It was real and true and honest. It was filled with love for my subject. It was about a romance between two people who needed–desperately–to love each other. It was about music, and about art saving you, and about redemption and triumph and even a little thread of mysticism and magic.
All writers travel a similar path to their own work. Maybe your path has been harder than mine, or easier, but we’re all looking for that work we can call our own, those threads of power that electrify us, make us race back to the work, day after day, no matter what else is going on.
Look back over your journey. When did you connect with something in a riveting, powerful way? When did you feel in your guts, “this is good”? When did you get particularly good responses from editors or critique partners or reviewers? Write down all of those moments, and then see if you can find some similar thread in them, themes or ideas or connection points of any kind. That is the raw material of your voice, and there is the work you’re meant to do.
Over time, some of the layers will shift and change, of course. That’s life—our voices change with our journey. I’ve fallen in love with England, and I wrote about second chances so much because I had a pretty traumatic divorce (aren’t they all?). If you find the work you’ve been doing doesn’t fit anymore, that might be why. Figure out where your deepest loves are now, and see what happens.
Now, get to it. We need those stories.
Do you know the threads of your voice? Can you point to certain moments in your writing when you knew you were on the right track? How has that played out in your journey? If your voice has shifted, can you point to the events and shifts in thinking that changed it?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!