Voice Lesson Number Four: Develop Your Style

Voice Lesson Number Four: Develop Your Style

When I was a high school senior, I crushed hard on a pair of silver Chucks in our mall’s shoe store.  Those sneakers sparkled under the fluorescents like they were calling to my punk, grunge-girl heart. I can’t tell you how much they cost, only that they cost more than I could afford. 
 
For months, I visited them and daydreamed about the compliments I’d get and how well they’d go with my thrift-store skirts—especially the ones I called my granny camo. 
 
I still think those Chucks are pretty rad, but I’m now at an age where my shoes need arches. 
 
Some of you might be thinking, silver Chucks, really?
 
If you are, that’s great! Style—whether it’s in clothing or writing—is extremely personal. 
 
In writing, style involves word choice, sentence structure, and rhythm. While authenticitytruth, and perspective require you to explore something inside of yourself, style is definitely a skill learned over time.   
 
When I think of writing style, three authors come to mind.
 
First, there’s twentieth-century poet e.e. cummings, who wrote 

may i feel said he
(i’ll squeal said she
just once said he)
it’s fun said she
 
Cummings refused to capitalize anything, including the letter I, in hopes of decreasing the importance of the self in his work. 
 
Then there’s the Hemmingway/Faulkner debate. Faulkner famously wrote a 1,288-word run-on sentence in Absalom, Absalom! Hemmingway’s spartan style is frequently associated with a six-word story—For sale: baby shoes, never worn—that may not actually be his. 

While modern audiences tend to prefer leaner writing (check out the Hemmingway Editor App) you don’t have to become a Hemmingway disciple. You do need to understand your style. 
 
Here’s your inner work: 
 
Scroll through your files and select a piece of writing that exemplifies your best work. Print a hard copy. 
 
Next, record yourself reading the piece out loud. 
 
Close your eyes and play the recording. Listen to the rhythm of your sentences. Do they gallop, trot along, or lazily amble by? Do certain sounds stand out? 
 
Now, play the recording while you follow along with your hard copy. What do you notice about the length of your sentences and your use of white space? What on the page enhances your story? 
 
Here’s your outer work: 
 
Choose three authors you admire. Copy a few paragraphs of their work by hand. Handwriting each word will help you get a feel for the writing and the length of the writer’s sentences. 
 
Record yourself reading this work. Close your eyes and listen to your recording. What do you notice? 
 
Listen back again while following along with your hard copy. See anything else? 
 
Jot down your answers and reflect on what they tell you about your own writing style. 
 
Here’s your writing work: 
 
Consider writing some of your prose in a favorite author’s style to see how it feels. Then try another author. Notice what feels authentic. Ditch anything that doesn’t seem to work. Then practice, practice, practice your art form.  
 
While I hope you’ll focus largely on writers in your genre, be sure to check out On Writing Well by William Zinsser. And, while you’re at it, subscribe to Poetry Daily and see how poets approach this work.
 
Which authors do you turn to when learning about style? Send me their names. I’d love to know, and your answer might inspire someone else. 

Voice Lesson Number Three: Understanding Your Unique Lens

Voice Lesson Number Three: Understanding Your Unique Lens

Do you know what color glasses you’re wearing when you sit down to write? 

Not sure? 

For a long time, I struggled with this too. 
 
In writing, we approach our stories from a particular angle that’s driven by our authentic self. The details you capture or exclude create a tone your writing projects–like glasses with a colored lens. That tone could be darkly humorous, serious, or cynical. 
 
Tone is the attitude we take in our writing. It’s closely aligned with perspective. 
 
To understand perspective, and its relationship to tone, try this exercise with a partner: 

  • Take a picture of a house in your neighborhood and share it with your partner. 
  • Set a timer for five minutes and write descriptions of that house. 
  • Next, describe the house as if you’re standing next to a new lover. 
  • Finally, describe the house as if you’re a soldier who’s just returned from battle.  

 
I bet each description focuses on a slightly different aspect of the house. Those variations come from the character’s lens. Now, notice the similarities between the three descriptions. Those similarities arise from your voice as a writer. The emotional feel of those details is your tone. 

Now, share your descriptions with your partner. 
 
How does their lens compare to yours? 
 
Here’s your inner work: 
 
Return to the social media posts I asked you to save. Weed out the cat and kid pictures. Find the ones where you wrote something that truly represents you. Notice the similarities. Are they funny, impassioned, or serious? 
 
That general tone is an element of the real you. 
 
Here’s your outer work: 
 
Identify the authors on your bookshelf whose lens is similar to your own. If nothing sticks out, drop by your local independent bookstore and ask the salesclerk for some recommendations. As you read selected works, underline the sentences that have the most voice. Write a few down. Journal about why this author’s voice works well. 
 
Here’s your writing work: 

Now that you have a sense of your lens, figure out what you need to do harness its power. Study the masters, read craft articles, and then write, write, write. 
 
What tone patterns did you notice in your social media posts? Send me an email so I can hear what you learned.   

Looking for more voice lessons? 

Voice Lesson One: The Courage to Be True

Voice Lesson Two: Be Your Authentic Self

Voice Lesson Number Two: Be Your Authentic Self

Voice Lesson Number Two: Be Your Authentic Self

I spent the summer of 1984 being my own twin cousin. I was ten. My mom had just chopped my long hair into a shoulder-length bob.

After crying about my uneven bangs, I put on a pair of white plastic sunglasses, stuffed three sticks of Doublemint gum into my mouth, and introduced myself as twin cousin Jennifer from Oswego. 

A few kids were skeptical of my twin-cousin claims, but I answered their questions about my likes (swearing, climbing apple trees, reading Cosmo) and dislikes (playing with sticks, messing with ants, and answering questions).

When they asked how we could be twins if we didn’t have the same mother, I told them our mothers shared a mother and that was pretty much the same thing. 

Without the Internet to debunk my theory, kids agreed to call me Jennifer. 

In becoming someone else, I began to see who I really was. 

Your first voice lesson was about finding your courage

Here’s lesson number two: To find your voice, you have to know who you are. 

Some people think having a voice means turning on the sass, revealing your master’s in slang, or dispensing f-bombs like they’re PEZ candy. Others think you need to be gonzo like Hunter S. Thompson and tell counter-culture stories in strange accents. 

If you’re not gonzo or sassy, trying to write as if you are is like wearing a mask to work. There will be weird looks. When you try to convince someone your mask’s rhino horn is actually part of your forehead, someone will call bullshit. 

Be yourself instead.

Here’s your inner work: 

Exercise #1: What word do you use to describe that piece of furniture in your living room? Couch? Sofa? Davenport? Divan? Love seat? Rumpus Machine? 

There’s no shame in being a couch or sofa person. If you say divan or rumpus machinen, own it. Just begin to notice what language you naturally use. 

Exercise #2: Flip through your real or virtual photo albums. Pay attention to your style. While some fashion choices, like jelly sandals or MC Hammer pants, might have changed, I bet a few things remain the same. Perhaps it’s the cut of your clothes or your color palette. That something that remains the same is likely an aspect of your authentic self. 

Exercise #3: Make a list of adjectives that describe you. 

Exercise #4: Answer the following questions in your journal:

  • Who am I?
  • What are my passions?
  • How do I see the world?
  • If I could follow my bliss, what would that look like? 

 
Here’s your outer work: 

Exercise #1: Make a list of 3 or 4 animals that could represent you. Share the list with a group of friends and ask them which one they’d choose and why. Compare their answers to the adjectives you’ve chosen for yourself. 

Exercise #2: Scroll through your social media posts. Find the ones you’ve written that have the most likes. Copy and paste these posts into a document. Note which ones seem like they represent your authentic voice. We’ll come back to this document later in the month. 

Here’s your writing work: 

Author and entrepreneur Marie Forleo believes writing it rude will help you find your voice. Here’s what she means. Write your shitty first draft as if no one is going to read it. Pump it full of opinions and emotions. Say it with feeling and don’t worry about who’ll get hurt. 

In that passionate place, you’re most likely to write from your authentic voice. Underline the sentences that truly communicate your message, then revise, revise, revise to get the rest right.

When you revise, leave your voice in but take the rude out. As Marie says, the best writing comes from a place of both passion and compassion. 
 
Authenticity is a journey, not a destination. And. it’s important because you’re important. 

Take it from Martha Graham:
 

“There’s a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. it is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” 

 
If you did the animal exercise, send me an email and let me know which one your friends chose. I’d love to know. 

Finding Your “New Original:” Re-connecting with Your Manuscript in a COVID World

Finding Your “New Original:” Re-connecting with Your Manuscript in a COVID World

Last weekend my husband cut his finger while replacing the blade on his not-so-safe safety razor. By the time I reached the bathroom, the place looked like a murder scene. We wrapped the wound and hoped for the best. An hour later, it was still bleeding. Next stop: urgent care. 
 
Sitting in the urgent care parking lot was the starkest reminder I’d had that things had changed. 
 
He had to call to enter. Masks were required. His temperature was taken at the door. I was instructed to wait in the car. His wound required four stitches. Fortunately, it’s healing well. 
 
Every day, I hear people say they can’t wait until we can get back to normal. Hell, I find myself saying this. Who doesn’t want to grocery shop without fear or walk the neighborhood mask-free? 
 
What I crave is what Dr. Fauci calls “the original way.” I really like this term. “Normal” means we’re living life wrong. “Original way” suggests variations are acceptable. 
 
I also hear this on a regular basis: My project is no longer relevant. Our world has changed. Pre-COVID stories no longer matter. 
 
Not everything in life has to do with COVID19.
 
Babies are being born. Careers are beginning. People are dying of non-COVID causes. Somewhere someone is embarking on a fabulous adventure, even if that trip is simply a journey within. 
 
Your project contains a universal truth that’s still relevant. 

 

Find that universal. Stick it on a Post-It note. Read it every day. Write and revise toward that aim. Unclear on your universal?  Ask yourself the following question:  What’s the one emotion in my story everyone can relate to? Still not sure? Keep writing. 
 
Maybe you’ll find a “new original” for your project.
 
This new original won’t necessarily include COVID19 or pandemic scenes. Instead, it will retain your original narrative arc while also being sensitive to our collective experiences of fear, loss, and a search for meaning.  

If you’re looking for a way to find that new universal, consider signing up for the Thursday section of Writing Through Challenging Times. Class begins on Thursday, May 7, 2020 at 1:00 PM EDT.

 

Writing from the Bottom Rung: How to Sustain Your Creativity During a Pandemic

Writing from the Bottom Rung: How to Sustain Your Creativity During a Pandemic

This post was originally published on the Jane Friedman Blog
on Friday, April 3, 2020.

Quarantine day one. I sit at my desk and hold my pen. Nothing happens.

Quarantine day two. I stare at my computer screen and wonder what the hell is wrong. I mean, I wrote through Lyme disease, even on the days when my brain barely worked.

Quarantine day three. I scribble in my notebook. There are no words even though I feel so full of words I might explode.

Quarantine day four: I scribble and remember that time my dad said, “Don’t be so sensitive,” as if my greatest gift was really a curse. As my pen slides across the page, I realize I’m saying this very thing to myself. Don’t be so sensitive. Don’t be so sensitive even though it feels like the world is falling apart.

Maybe you’re sensitive too. Maybe all this suffering hurts deep in your marrow. Maybe the fear is like lightening coursing through your nerves. Maybe you’re expecting yourself to write as if this is not happening, somehow thinking all this free time will make you more productive.

All writing requires a certain amount of heart space. We tap into our feelings and memories so readers can inhabit our story worlds. Keeping your heart open enough to do this requires an energy reserve large enough to feel and deal with daily life.

Creative nonfiction, which often mines from our most painful experiences, requires an even bigger reserve.

Right now, our hearts are filled with COVID-19 cases and deaths, and which relative might be at risk, or which grocery store has the food I can eat—or better yet, toilet paper—or how much space is required to actually socially distance or how I will get paid or when will this end.

The bottom two rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs include our physical needs for food, water, warmth and rest as well as security. The top rung—self-actualization—is where creativity happens. Many of us are just not there, yet.

So, what do you do when your creative desires don’t match your rung?

  • Focus on those bottom-rung needs. Make sure you have enough healthy food to eat. Rest more than you think you need. Turn your house into a sanctuary. Exercise outside when possible.
  • Help yourself feel safe. Stay home as much as you can. Wash your hands. Limit your news intake. Journal about your fears so they can live on the page instead of inside you. Develop a gratitude practice that helps you pay attention to what is going well.
  • Tap into your wisdom. Practice meditation. Download the Insight Timer app on your phone. Set aside some time to just breathe. If you’re looking for a guide, consider Tara Brach or sign up for Deepak Chopra’s free 21-day meditation challenge. If sitting feels impossible, try walking meditations or join that YouTube yoga class everyone’s talking about.
  • Accept what is. We are living through a pandemic. If your mind is swirling with worries, or your day is focused on getting the kids to do that one online lesson, or you’re trying to figure out how to pay your rent, you’re not wasting your creative time. You’re just living from the bottom rung. Before you can climb, you have to make sure your current rung is sturdy enough to support you.
  • Keep showing up. Sit at your desk and try to write. If your work-in-progress calls to you, say thank you. If there’s silence, thank your unconscious for reminding you to practice self-care. Have faith that your pre-COVID-19 projects are still valuable. You will return to them when the time is right.
  • Pivot. Maybe now is not the time to work on your memoir or the novel that taps into a deep emotional vein. Keep a journal. Write a blog post or essay. Try poetry or fiction. Switching genres might help you exercise the heart space that is available for creativity.

There is strength in numbers, so I’m offering a mindfulness-based writing class, Writing Through Challenging Times. It’s a class about pivoting and playing and activating our internal wisdom. We’ll commit to self-care and perform acts of kindness in their communities. Each week, we’ll sit at our desks and try. Some of us will scribble a few words. Others will jot down new ideas. A few will dive into their works in progress. Old messages will surface. Together, we’ll combat them. Success depends only on showing up. As a team, we’ll rebuild our energy reserves. In the process, creativity will happen.

What practices or methods have helped you during this challenging spring? Share with us in the comments.

Writing Can Serve You Even if You’re Not Feeling Creative

Writing Can Serve You Even if You’re Not Feeling Creative

How are you? I mean that sincerely. How are you?  

It’s okay if you don’t know the answer. Maybe you’re cycling through a gamut of emotions that starts with shock or fear then moves through grief, overwhelm, and boredom only to return to shock and fear.

I’ve spoken with many writers who are struggling to make it to the page. When they do, nothing comes out. That’s understandable. The part of our brains that handle the fight-or-flight response is being inundated with frightening messages. We call that emotion center the amygdala. When the amygdala is overtaxed, it’s physically harder to think. On top of that, many of us don’t have the heart space needed for our most vulnerable projects.

That’s okay.

Be gentle with yourself.

Writing can still serve you even if you’re not feeling creative.

 

Keep a daily journal. We are living through a historic event. Record your thoughts, observations, and feelings. Make note of the weather. Collect random thoughts from social media, the news, and things others say to you. The more surprising the better.

If nothing else, your journal will remind you of what happened. Some of those facts could one day make it into an essay, memoir, short story or novel. More importantly, writing down your fears and troubling thoughts helps you let them go. They can live on the page rather than in your body or brain. This can reduce your cortisol level, boost your mood, and give you a sense of creative accomplishment.

Five minutes is all you need. If your mind wanders, no problem. All you’re doing is journaling. There’s no end goal. If you run out of things to write about, you can even write about that.

Practice gratitude. Every day during this crisis brings us a new set of challenges, but good things are also happening. Spring flowers are blooming. The sun is shining. You have access to the internet. Being grateful for what’s going well can improve your mood, boost your immune system, and make life more pleasant.

Here are a few ways you can practice gratitude:

  • At the end of each writing session, record one thing you’re grateful for.
  • Start a gratitude journal. Write down one gratitude at the beginning of the day, one at lunchtime, and one before bed. The next morning, read your journal then start again. If you’re tech-savvy, you can download the Five-Minute Journal and use it to store your answers.
  • Develop a daily thanksgiving ritual: Before dinner, have each person at the table state one thing they’re grateful for.
  • Write a letter or email of gratitude to someone who’s influenced your life.

Creativity requires a mind that is active and yet relaxed. This is something few of us feel at the moment. One thing is still true. Your stories have not gone anywhere. They’re just giving you room to cope with your COVID-19 challenges.

If you’re ready to start a gratitude practice, post one gratitude in the comments section of this blog post. You never know who you might encourage. You can also follow me on Facebook or Twitter and join my daily gratitude challenge.

Be well. Stay healthy. When you’re ready, write on.

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