I’m currently rereading an old favorite: Last of the Amazons, by Steven Pressfield. I’ve always known the book is seminal to my own work, but oddly I haven’t revisited it in many years. I’m starting to feel like the lengthy interim has been serendipitous. Experiencing the book again after all of these years is revealing much about my own evolution as a writer.
Even though I’ve always been aware of its influence, I hadn’t really recognized its prominence. I was already a fan of Pressfield’s historical fiction when it released, and bought it shortly after its publication in 2002. I just dug out some notes from my earliest research forays prior to my first attempt at storytelling (even before admitting to myself that I was preparing to write).
The notes are from the winter of ’03-’04. The subject? Amazons. Influential indeed.
Those of you who know my work features warrior women might have already surmised that rereading the book reveals one of the sources of my interest in them, as well as some of the enduring characteristics of the warrior woman archetype. And you’d be correct. But those things aren’t surprising to me. What is surprising is how influenced my early composing attempts were by Pressfield’s language and style.
In other words, I was influenced by his voice.
Initiation Through Imitation
I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s discovered in hindsight that they had been imitating a literary hero, or heroes, in their early work. Rereading Last of the Amazons has reminded me how captivated and inspired I was by the fictive spell Pressfield’s voice casts. The style is definitely archaic, but without being florid, elusive, or overly metaphoric.
The story is told from the first-person perspective of the youngest daughter of an Athenian nobleman whose governess is an Amazon named Selene. Selene has surrendered herself to the father in war. I still love the introduction, in which the girl describes Selene and her background and circumstance in their household. Here’s a taste (or should I say a whiff?):
Selene smelled. Mother would not permit her into the formal rooms of the house, as the odour she exhaled, so Mother claimed, clung to every garment, to her hair, and even the very walls themselves. ‘Can you not smell it, children? Good God, what a stink!’ Mother chased out our governess, often with a broom, to peals of our laughter. For Selene’s part, she abhorred the house and entered it only under compulsion, as civilized folk will a tomb.
It was different than the typical archaic writing I was used to (which was usually vaguely Elizabethan, whether or not the story took place in England). I never found myself asking if this was how an ancient Greek girl from a noble family would sound. I just accepted it. I think I was as captivated and intrigued by that as I was by the elements of backstory and plot.
The voice didn’t work for everyone, of course. I checked the book’s Goodreads reviews, and it seems the style of the prose is among its most frequently cited complaints. But whether or not readers believed Pressfield succeeded in sounding like an ancient Greek girl, he’d succeeded in awakening me to the possibilities of writing from the perspectives of ancient Goths and Romans.
Looking back at those early drafts, written with Pressfield’s voice echoing in my mind, makes me cringe. The prose is so stiff, so formal. Not to mention my wordiness (something with which I still struggle—have you noticed?). But rereading Amazons has me wondering what my early attempts might have been like without my unconscious imitation. Even more cringe-worthy, I’m guessing.
More importantly, I wonder if I would’ve dared to attempt what I did at all.
My Evolving Understanding of Voice
“Who you are is what you write.”—Steven Pressfield
Earlier I mention the elements of language and style in regard to authorial voice. And for the longest time, I didn’t really understand voice beyond those basics. I’ve since come to a broader understanding, but I don’t think my take is a universal one. And I’m not sure it’s done evolving.
I’ve come to see that the Pressfield quote above is true. Who I am is what I write. Pressfield also says that voice is born of the project. If that’s so, and you combine the two statements, then each of our writing endeavors is necessarily “of ourselves.” Therefore, the voice born of each project is found not just by perceiving ourselves within it, but through a complete willingness to reveal ourselves there.
I’ve come to see that there has to be an aspect of surrender. Anything short of submission involves imposition. Without surrendering to it, I’ll find that I’m imposing what I think my voice ought to sound like. Which means I’m trying to craft a voice to please others.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m consciously trying to please others, I’m not being myself. That’s no way to find your true voice.
Finding My Voice…By Ceasing to Look For It?
I recently received one of my favorite and most memorable compliments. It came from a critique partner—a fellow fantasy writer who has read my work over a long period of time, including each of my finished manuscripts (more than one version of some). She said four simple words: “You’ve found your voice.”
I swear—even though my initial reaction in hearing those words from someone who’s read me for so long was, “Only just now?”—I very quickly accepted that it was true, and recognized it as very special praise.
Of course I still routinely question whether or not I’m using my true voice (more on that later). But assuming that I’ve found it (at least once, however ephemerally), how did I do it? The short answer: I stopped trying to find it. It’s that easy…
And that hard.
So hard it can sometimes seem impossible to maintain. The whole thing is tied up with what I allude to above—the trap of caring too much what others will think of what I write. Not that I can advise anyone to simply stop caring. I’m not sure that’s possible. It wouldn’t have been for me. What I’m about to describe is the route I accidentally took, and it’s sort of contrary to not caring.
I’m saying you have to care so much that you’ll spend years and years striving to please readers.
You have to care so much that you’ll almost trip over yourself to change things to make your stories more pleasing, only to find that many of those changes have done the opposite.
You have to care so much you come to realize that critique can actually resonate, that every bit of it can be helpful—including the elements you finally come to realize you need not react to (rather than taking it all personally, and clinging to that which doesn’t apply).
You have to care so much that you’re willing not just to fail, but fail often enough that the failure reveals just how subjective this really is, and accept that most readers either won’t choose your stuff or, even if they do, just won’t get it.
You have to care until you earn being care-free.
For me, that’s when it happened. Only when I cared till I was beyond caring could I honest-to-God write just to please myself. That’s when I recognized and accepted that the stories I choose are the truest part of me. Only then could I willingly reveal my true self within them.
Maybe it can work for you, too. If you’re willing to surrender to the process, you just may come to realize you’ve stopped caring. And you’ll willingly reveal you. And after that, you may notice that you’ve stopped trying to find your voice.
And then, of course, you’ll realize that you’ve found it. See? Easy. And hard.
Continuing to Find My Voice
But, of course, when it comes to the pursuit of art, nothing’s ever over-and-done. It seems that my newly-won authorial voice doesn’t have an on/off switch I can flip. For me, the trick is to find it again and again. I can’t just surrender to the process once. My Ego is so damn resilient, I find I have to surrender over and over—each writing day, in fact. Talk about the need for patience and persistence!
The ongoing quest is about staying true to that authentic voice I fleetingly find. And recognizing it, even when my sneaky Ego starts mimicking it so that I can hide again. Some days it can leave me feeling raw and exhausted.
But the effort produces deep satisfaction, and even joy, too. And the lasting reward is significant—even beyond the assurance that the work done in my true voice is my best. In the quest to surrender to the process, to reveal myself in order to find and to continue to recognize my authorial voice, I not only find and recognize who I am as a writer, but who I am as a human being.
Your turn. Did you start by imitating anyone? Who? Do you believe you can care until you’re care-free? Have you found your voice? How do you know? Does staying true to it require ongoing effort?
[Image is: Microphone at MOMA, by John Wolfe @Flickr]