She enthusiastically agreed and sent us a list of topics to choose from. Cheryl, Nichole, and I were quick to choose the one on finding your voice as a writer. It seems to be so timely for many of us who are just starting out.
Don't whisper, don't blather! The Literary Ladies on finding your voice
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 chose to sit in a corner at a restaurant or at a gathering, friends sometimes delivered the film’s iconic line—”Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”—thinking that they were being extremely 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 authors of the past whose works we know and love (Alcott, Austen, Brontë, Alcott, Wharton, Woolf, and six others), my role was to comment on how the experiences they had and obstacles they overcame on the writing path still resonate with contemporary women who write. Since I myself designed the pages, I set my comments in tiny type, and placed them in whatever narrow margins I could hide them in. That all ended when the book found a publisher, and the editor firmly told me I could no longer whisper in the corner, metaphorically nor literally. My words, he decreed, had to have equal weight as those of my literary foremothers.
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 being a 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 (the literary equivalent of nervous chatter)—churning out overwrought prose with no self-editing, little self-censoring, and becoming defensive when objective editorial eyes offers solid suggestions on shaping and refining your words.
What advice would the Literary Ladies have for those of us still seeking to find or define our voice and style? Here are a few thoughts from women authors who went through much the same, and emerged to tell the tale of their endeavors.
“I found that newspaper work did a great deal of good for me in working off the purple flurry of my early writing. 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
“Every dawning talent has to go through a phase of imitation and subjection to influences, and the great object of the young writer should be not to fear those influences, but to seek only the greatest, and to assimilate them so they become [her] stock-in-trade.” — Edith Wharton, from a letter, 1918
“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 ... Young people use too many adjectives and try to “write fine.” The strongest, simplest words are best ... 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 have a theory that most of us have at least a sense 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, too assertive, too unconventional, or too much like the self we know is in there somewhere, clamoring to come out. The best remedy for timid whispering or overwrought blathering, it seems, is simply to do a great deal of very regular writing, peeling back the layers and revealing the true writer within. 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. Visit the web site at http://www.literaryladiesguide.com
Thank you so much, Nava for your words.
What do you think? Have you found your writing voice or do you sit in a corner?