Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Writer Wednesday: Capturing that Elusive Voice

Browsing the new book section of my local library the other day, I spotted a collection of essays and stories featuring writers in my area, the majority of whom had attended the same workshop. Curious about local talent, I checked it out. It was an interesting read, but not because of the quality of the work. None were horrible, just numbingly boring and surprisingly similar given that they were men and women of different ages and experiences.

I skimmed through the beginning of each one, and when nothing caught my interest, skipped to the next. There were more than a dozen stories in all, and I only read one through to the end. It wasn't perfect by any means. A personal essay relating the author's experiences with cooking to her three marriages, it rambled at times, wasn't structured particularly well, and its point was far from original. So why did I read it through? The writer had a distinct and original voice, one that drew me in and made me want to know more about her. It wasn't a sophisticated voice, but it was authentic. The writer was telling me about her world as she experienced it.

The other stories, while more polished, were not as compelling. Why not? My guess is that those writers were striving to be literary. Their first concern was to impress their readers, to razzel-dazzle them with fancy words and obscure allusions. The writer of the story I finished wasn't concerned with that. (Interestingly, she was one of the few writers in the collection without a MFA degree.) She just wanted to tell her story, and so she got on with it. She wrote simply, but honestly. When I came to the last page I felt as if I had gotten to know someone new.

So what is the moral? Is there one? What I learned from reading that collection was to listen to my inner voice and not be so self-conscious about making mistakes. Too often I try to be smart-alecky and a show-off. It's safer than saying what you really feel, especially if your thoughts might not meet with approval. I didn't learn to swim until I was in my twenties, and long after  I was able to paddle my awkward way across the length of the pool, I clung close to the sides. There comes a day, though, when you have to head out of the shallows and into deep waters. Sure, you'll falter, but ultimately, you'll become a much better swimmer. Unless, of course, you drown.

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