Stop Whispering ~ Thoughts on Finding Your Voice ~ Nava Atlas

Stop whispering! 
The eternal
quest to find your writing voice
By Nava Atlas
When the movie Dirty Dancing (1987) came out, I was often told that I resembled
“Baby,” the lead female character played by Jennifer Grey. If I
sat in a corner at a restaurant or at a gathering, friends sometimes
delivered the film’s iconic line—”Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”—
considering themselves completely hilarious. But I liked corners, and
I still do. They’re cozy, and it’s easy to blend into the woodwork.
Putting oneself in a corner, though, either in the real world, or on
the printed page, is the equivalent of whispering. Women tend to do
that a lot, especially when we’re unsure of our own voices.
     
When I started working on The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life,
a collection of first-person narratives by classic women authors on
their experiences and challenges as writers, I was content to whisper
in the margins of the pages of the book. Alongside the musings of twelve
classic authors of the past (Alcott, Austen, Brontë, Alcott, Wharton,
Woolf, and six others), my role was to comment on how their experiences
and challenges resonate with today’s writing women. Since I myself
designed the pages, I set my comments in tiny type, and tried to hide
them as best I could in the pages’ gutters. That ended when the book
found a publisher, and the editor firmly told me I could no longer whisper
in the corner, neither metaphorically or literally.
     
At first, raising my voice above a whisper wasn’t easy. All those
familiar “Who do you think you are…” demons rushed in to fill
the void where confidence should have been firmly in place. “Finding
your voice” is a writing directive that teeters on cliché. Yet, what’s
more important than developing a distinctive personality in print? Without
a firm grip on voice, you’re left either with whispering shyly, or
its flip side, endlessly blathering streams of overwrought prose or
poetry, the literary equivalent of nervous chatter
     
What advice would revered classic authors have for those of us still
seeking to find or define our voice and style? Here are a few thoughts
from writers who went through much the same as most of us, and emerged
to tell the tale:
“Every young writer has to work off the ‘fine writing’ stage.
It was a painful period in which I overcame my florid, exaggerated,
foamy-at-the-mouth, adjective-spree … I knew even then it was a crime
to write like I did, but I had to get the adjectives and the youthful
fervor worked off. I believe every young writer must write whole books
of extravagant language to get it out.” —Willa Cather, from an
interview, 1915
“I didn’t have any particular gift in my twenties. I didn’t
have any exceptional qualities … The only reason I finally was able
to say exactly what I felt was because, like a pianist practicing, I
wrote every day. There was no more than that. There was no studying
of writing, there was no literary discipline, there was only the reading
and receiving of experience.” —Anais Nïn, from an essay, 1975
Each person’s method is no rule for another. Each
must work in [her] own way, and the only drill needed is to keep writing
and profit from criticism … Read the best books, and they will improve
your style. See and hear good speakers and wise people, and learn of
them. Work for twenty years, and then you may some day find that you
have a style and place of your own, and you can command good pay for
the same things no one would take when you were unknown. —Louisa May
Alcott, from a letter to a reader, 1878
I suspect that most of us have an inkling of what our literary voice
should be, but what’s missing is the courage to use it. Raised to
be good girls, many of us are reluctant to sound too strong, assertive,
unconventional, or too much like the self we know is in there somewhere,
clamoring to come out. The best remedy, simple though it seems, is to
write in quantity, vast quantity if possible, allowing yourself to do
mediocre (or even terrible) work, a practice that will eventually peel
back the layers of self-consciousness to reveal a true voice. As for
me, I still like to sit in corners in restaurants and at parties, but
on the page—not so much any more.
Nava Atlas is the author of The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life.
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