What Happens When You Don’t Like A Book You’re Supposed To Love?

About four weeks ago, I took a book out of the library that I was supposed to love. A good friend of mine recommended it to me about a year and a half ago and it had been on my to-read list since then. Looking for one last ‘literary’ read before harvest sets in and my life becomes consumed by physical work and I’m too drained to read anything other than quick, fun books, I checked it out.

The book was called Ironweed by William Kennedy. A quick Wikipedia search told me that I was SURE to, at the very least, WANT to love this book. In fact, my literary credentials were at stake if I DIDN’T love this book: It was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1984, which means that, for all intents and purposes, it was the BEST BOOK IN AMERICA for a single year. THE BEST BOOK. Who the hell am I to tell the Pulitzer judges that their choice of book wasn’t quite up to snuff for me, and that they had better go back and pick a different one because I couldn’t get through it?

Ironweed, the flower. Much more beautiful than the book cover.

Ironweed, the flower. Much more beautiful than the book cover.

And yet, sadly but surely, I couldn’t get through it. I read the first twenty pages, laughing out loud. They were funny. Then the next twenty pages, which were a bit more somber. Then the next fifty pages, which frankly made me want to die. The subject matter – homeless bums on the vagrant path, sick, hungry, and drunk, lost in dreams from their past lives – was depressing enough that I was seriously worried about falling back into the weeks of blackness I’d so recently pulled myself out of.

I put the book down, feeling somewhat guilty. Just finish it, I reprimanded myself. Maybe that last page is fucking glorious. Maybe the last chapter makes the whole thing worth it. Maybe the second half brings the whole thing together and you’ll think it’s the best goddamn book you’ve ever read. 

But, I reminded myself, suffering through page after page of misery just to get to a last page that may or may not deliver some moment of poignancy isn’t necessarily worth it. You shouldn’t have to force yourself to read anything, unless you really really want to. And in poor Mr. Kennedy’s case, I really just didn’t want to.

I’ve had people tell me they thought Tolstoy was trash. That they hate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. That Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls was the dullest read they’d ever choked down. And yet, for some reason, we come back to these classics, over and over again, simply because we’ve been told they’re classic, that we OUGHT to read them, that we MUST love them, that they have some sort of literary credential that has STOOD THE TEST OF TIME. And that frankly, if you don’t love them, there’s something wrong with YOU, the reader, not with the book or the author.

This is a huge stigma in the world of literature, publishing, writing. There is an idea that, once a book or an author has been thoroughly vetted and approved by the mass of critics in the New York Times and the New Yorker, he or she becomes sacrosanct, untouchable, uncriticizable. Once you have attained that status, you’re a literary god. And if by chance some plebeian reader happens to dislike your work, well, that’s the reader’s problem.

Of note, too, is that the books that achieve this status are almost always in the genre known as literary fiction – contemporary, real world, adorned with golden phrases or “muscular” prose. Rare is it when a science fiction, fantasy, or (God forbid!) romance novel achieve this untouchable status. No, only literary fiction authors can achieve these heights, and once attained, it is the reader’s, not the writer’s, fault if he or she doesn’t like the book.

Maybe that’s true and maybe that isn’t. But I come back to my previous statement: You shouldn’t have to force yourself to read anything. If you’re enjoying it, continue. If not, put the damn book down and find something you will.

There are some books, of course, that almost demand a bit of sacrifice before you get to the good parts. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace requires that you struggle through the length of an entire normally-sized book, about two hundred pages, before you finally get to the real story, when the book becomes a page turner and you simply can’t put it down. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky requires about seventy pages of penance before the action picks up. And pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to says that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - by all accounts an action-packed, dark, gritty story – is boring as hell before you get to the meat.

But if you’re half-way through the book and the only thing urging you on is a sense that you haven’t quite lived up to your own literary standards, that you aren’t enjoying a book you’re supposed to enjoy – “it was a goddamn Pulitzer prize winner!” – that some agent or professor or editor will one day find out that you thought Ironweed was shit and look down upon you for it, then for God’s sakes, put aside your pretensions, put down the book, and go read something else.

We only have so much time in this world, and there are hundreds of thousands of books to be read. Don’t waste your time reading something you’re not enjoying, no matter how much anyone else insists you’re missing out. No matter how much the New York Times Book Review insists you’re putting down the best book of the decade. No matter how much the New Yorker insults your intelligence for not being able to keep up with the literary masters. Read what you love. Not what you’re supposed to love. The end.

#StandWithFerguson

I originally had written out a blog post about literary fiction and publishing that I was going to post for today’s #MondayBlogs post. But then I sat in a hot tub with four other white people while the riots in a suburb of my hometown, St. Louis, rage on. While police shoot rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters standing in solidarity with the unarmed black man, Mike Brown, who was shot and killed by a cop, I sat in a hot tub with four white people who claimed that “white privilege is not a thing”.

I kept my mouth shut. Being one against four is fucking hard. I’m not proud of it, but I did. I didn’t speak up and I didn’t speak out.

So in lieu of pointlessly arguing in a hot tub while drinking beer, I’m going to speak up now. Screw that blog post I wrote about literature and fiction – it can wait. There are more important things at stake right now.

Chris Hayes Ferguson

Here are three simple reasons why we should all stand in solidarity with Ferguson:

First, one of the fundamental tenets of civil society is that every man or woman has a right to defend him or herself in court. “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” An easier way of saying that is that we are “innocent until proven guilty.” Mike Brown and the dozens of other black men and women who are hurt before being given due process of the law are victims of an unjust system of racial discrimination wherein police are allowed to harm or kill them before formally charging them because of preconceived notions that they are “dangerous”. This is called “racial profiling,” and is a form of discrimination which is fundamentally unjust. The color of a man or woman’s skin should never, ever, determine the kind of treatment he or she is given in the course of law. Mike Brown’s death, therefore, was unjust and the officer who shot him should be investigated and, if necessary, punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Second, peaceful demonstrations are protected under the Constitution. The police response to the demonstrations in Ferguson have made it implicitly clear that there needed to be an addendum to that statement: “peaceful demonstrations are protected under the constitution if you are WHITE.” The approach to the situation in Ferguson – a predominantly black, lower-income suburb of St. Louis – has demonstrated the exact same kind of racial profiling that got Mike Brown killed. Small scale translates to large scale, individual profiling translates to profiling of an entire suburb, an entire PEOPLE, and

Third, police brutality and unnecessary use of militarized force are NEVER, ever, okay. The police are there to PROTECT citizens, NOT TO HARM THEM. This should be the most utterly obvious thing in the world, but for some reason, the PD in Ferguson seems to have forgotten this. The job of the police force is not to shoot citizens, not to throw tear gas at them, not to haze them with rubber bullets and impose curfew and military law upon them, but to PROTECT THE CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES. Why the fuck else would we have a police force, if not for that?

If you agree with any of these three tenets: (1) that everyone has a right to defend him/herself in court; (2) that peaceful demonstrations are protected under the Constitution of the United States of America; or (3) that police brutality and unnecessary use of force are not okay under any circumstances, then you, too, must rise up with Ferguson as we all speak out or stand up for the rights we are given as citizens of the United States of America.

I love this country. But sometimes, we are called upon to stand against it, that we may all move forward, as a country, towards a more just and secure nation. Martin Luther King wrote that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” The Declaration of Independence states that, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is [the people's] right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Here and now, we have the opportunity to stand against great injustice and fight for the universal rights and protections of all citizens under the Constitution of the United States. This is one of those times. Stand with Ferguson.

COVER REVEAL: The Reaping

THE REAPING COVER 8.13

Remy Alexander wants justice. After narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Sector only to watch her world burn around her, she will defy everyone to find her revenge.

Valerian Orlean wants truth. After learning what evils the Sector is truly capable of, he must confront his past in order to create a better future.

In a world where deadly secrets lurk around every corner, and the food you eat can enlighten or enslave you, Remy and Vale must walk the line between hope and hate, love and loss, violence and vengeance, in order to unite – or destroy – their world.

THE REAPING, Book 2 of The Seeds Trilogy, will be released in Fall of 2014. Official launch date to come. Stay tuned!

An update about my journal, to all concerned and astonishingly helpful friends who might be curious: a kind gentleman who has asked that I not share his name has helped reunite me with my journal. I received it in the mail yesterday, which just goes to show that there is always hope and faith to be had in the generosity of strangers. I couldn’t be more grateful or happy. Thank you to him, and to all who helped share the message so that I might fight for it to come back to me.

An Open Letter to Southwest Airlines

Dear Mr. Gary M. Kelly, C.E.O. of Southwest Airlines, and everyone else from the top of the chain on down,

As humans sometimes we are confronted by moments of inexplicable sadness, happiness, confusion, exuberance, love, or anger. As humans we also experience moments that are 100% explainable – moments of grief that lead to sadness. Moments of joy that lead to happiness. Moments where we have life-changing decisions ahead of us that lead to confusion and worry. Moments of love shared between two people looking at the stars, or between a mother and child catching fireflies in the summer night. Moments that make us so angry we want to punch walls – or the person who made us feel that way.

writingThese emotions make us human. The history of these emotions in a particular person is the sum total of that individual – in other words, the history of these emotions makes up a person’s identity. You are defined by the moments you have experienced and the thoughts and emotions that sprang from them.

On Sunday afternoon, August 10, 2014, I lost three years of that history.

I didn’t always keep a journal. A much-loved friend of mine gave me a blank composition notebook, hand-decorated on the outside, as a Christmas present in 2006. I’d tried keeping a journal many times before that, and always gotten a few entries in before my dedication wavered and the journal was set aside to founder. But this time, for some reason, it stuck. Maybe because that year, 2007, was a year of such dramatic change for me that I felt almost obligated to record it. Compelled, somehow. I graduated high school. I went to college. I fell in love. I made some of the best friends I’ve ever known. And I wrote all of that down, dutifully transpiring those moments as a record of how I, as a teenager, was maturing into an adult.

I filled up that journal ten months from the date I began it, and I immediately went to the drugstore to buy another composition notebook, almost identical, so that I could continue the story, the record of who I had been and who I was becoming. Poems, song lyrics, quotes, memories, short stories, fears, loves, dreams. The sum total of who I am.

The journal your employees lost on Sunday, August 10, 2014, was the third such composition notebook I’d filled in. It was more than three-quarters full with three years of history, and some of the most formative years of my life. I was looking forward to finishing it before the New Year. It began in 2011, the year I felt so hopelessly lost I couldn’t tell right from wrong. It told the story of how I met the man I’m still in love with to this day. It told the story of some of my most exciting adventures, the three months I spent in France, alone on the other side of the world. It told of my travels from one side of this country to the other, from one side of Europe to the other. It told of how I came to be where I am today, and who I am today. Dreams, visions, meditations, wonderings, musings, curiosities, banalities of no interest to anyone but myself – these are all the mysteries contained within the pages of the composition notebook that I gave into the care of Southwest Airlines and was not returned to me.

I beg you to find it.

I handed my bag to your employees – a backpacker’s bag, with the composition notebook securely clasped into the front pocket – as I boarded the plane. When I retrieved the bag at the carousel, the journal was gone. Watching the blank looks on the faces of your employees’ at the ‘Lost And Found Baggage’ claim as I tried to explain that this journal is financially worthless but emotionally invaluable made me think that perhaps you had better hire more sympathetic Lost And Found employees, as I found no comfort with them. Or at least ones who are better at pretending to be sympathetic. One of them scrawled a phone number for me to call on a torn-off piece of paper, and took down my own notes on a separate piece of scrap paper. There were no forms to fill out, no reports filed. ‘Call this number,’ was the best they could do. I haven’t heard back from whoever I called, by the way, although I was reassured on the answering machine that my inquiry would be answered ‘as soon as possible’. Whenever that is.

I’ve long told anyone who will listen that writing in my journals has been the single most important factor in the slow but steady process of my self-identification as a ‘writer’. I recommend that every aspiring writer do the same. It has helped develop what little talent I have. It has shown me how to illustrate a life, what is trivial and what is not, what depths there are to personhood. It has taught me to compose sentences and to probe deeper into my subconscious. My journals are the epitome of Socrates’ exhortation: ‘Know thyself.’ Without them, I do not know myself.

If I had to pick a single material possession to save from my house if it were burning down, it would be the box that contains my journals. My phone, my computer, my keyboard, my bike – all of these things are replaceable. My journal – handwritten, intensely personal, disconnected from ‘the cloud’, scrapbooked on the outside with ticket stubs, postcards, receipts – is not. What has been lost, in this case, may never be recovered.

Our identities as humans are composed of our memories, our emotions, the moments we have allowed to define us. For the love of God, give me back these three years, all those words that were so carelessly lost after being so carefully transposed. For the love of God, find my journal and give it back to me.

Sincerely,

Amira Makansi

Hit The Road: Kerouac, Johnny Cash, Pink Floyd, and Bikes

Watch this video full-screen. Trust me.

 

WE WERE NEVER BORN from Dosnoventa on Vimeo.

 

I’m off to the wilderness of Oregon to do something that looks vaguely like this. I’ll be gone a few days, so enjoy yourselves, be kind to others, and remember to take a breath every now and then.

Amira Vs Adulthood

When I was a child, I used to dream about being an adult.

“Gosh,” I thought to myself, “I can’t wait until I’m tall enough to put these dishes away without climbing on the kitchen counter.” Or, “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to not listen to my parents when they tell me to clean their coffeemaker. I don’t even DRINK coffee!” Or, “I bet when I’m a grownup, I’ll be able to read a WHOLE book in ONE day!”

Little did I know what adulthood would actually turn out to be.

The concept of ‘being an adult’ that I had when I was a kid generally involved the freedom to do whatever the fuck I wanted, and the freedom from doing anything anyone else told me to do.

What I didn’t realize is that not only is real adulthood so far from that idea that I might as well have been dreaming of life on a different planet, but in fact also involves all sorts of things that I used to consider ‘mature’ and ‘exciting’ and that turned out to be not only dull, but sometimes excruciatingly painful and occasionally terrifying. Responsibility, it turns out, does not come naturally to me. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve had to stop thinking of myself as an ‘adult’ and start thinking of myself as a ‘grownup’ because, to be perfectly honest, ‘grownup’ is much more accurate, in that the only thing it implies is that I’ve done all my growing, thank you, and my skeleton probably is not going to change in size for a long time. ‘Adult’, by contrast, implies a level of maturity I still have not achieved, and have begun to despair that I will ever achieve.

Take bills, for instance. Bills are something I struggle with, as a concept. I rent my apartment, and have, off and on, for the last five years, with the exception of when I was living with my parents (another example of lack of responsibility). Most of the time, my utilities have been included in my rent, but at my current apartment, they’re not. The result of this is that my electricity bill has been sitting on or near my computer for the last two weeks as I’ve ignored it and ignored it, scoffing at the idea that I should have to pay more money in addition to the money I already pay to live.

“Why should I have to pay for my electricity?” I demand of myself, constantly. “I already pay rent!”

My child-self would probably reprimand my grownup-self with some wise retort like, “Just pay your bills, you plumhead!*”  But that’s probably because my child-self was a lot smarter than my grownup-self.

Dishes are another great example. I haven’t lived without a dishwasher in a long time, but my new apartment doesn’t have one. I frequently grow confused when, having done the dishes two nights ago, I find myself confronted by yet more dirty dishes lingering in the sink that need to be washed.

“What’s this?” I’ll demand angrily. “I just did the dishes! I thought that was enough dishwashing to last an entire WEEK!”

My inner voice of reason (child-self) will usually remind me that, since I used plates and bowls and knives and forks for the last five meals in a row, and did not wash any of them, they must now be washed before I can use them again. But, my voice of reason, being, well, reasonable (and therefore a bit quieter than the opposition), doesn’t drown out the vast irrationality of my grownup self. And my grownup-self doesn’t quite understand the concept. As I’m washing dishes, I’ll hum to myself contentedly, thinking about very few dishes I’ll have to do over the next week or so, since I’ve washed them all now. But in the back of my head there’s that lingering doubt, that confusion, that tells me that more dishes will appear, suddenly and without warning, in the coming days.

I go through a similar thought process with all forms of cleaning, including sweeping, mopping, wiping down the counters, and dusting.

And don’t even get me started on laundry.

I actually really like the process of washing and drying clothes – I love the sense of accomplishment I get when I do virtually nothing except load the clothes in the washer or dryer and then sit around and wait for them to be clean and dry. It’s like a drug – you get a huge high without doing any work. It’s fantastic.

But folding clothes is a beast of a different kind. To convince myself to fold my clothes, I usually have to allow myself to have a least one beer.

“Okay,” I think to myself. “That’ll take the edge off. Let’s fold these clothes!”

For a brief moment, I’ll get excited about how mature and responsible I’m being.

“Look at me folding these clothes! I’m folding clothes like a pro! I’m not even going to leave any unmatched socks behind to be found three weeks later behind my bed covered in dust bunnies!”

And inevitably, I’ll fold all my clothes, or half of them, or I’ll just match all my socks or something, and then I’ll think, “All right, that’s enough folding for now.” I’ll leave my clean sheets or my bath towels or my still-dirty-clothes-I-forgot-to-include-in-my-laundry-bag on the floor or on the bed. And then I’ll go sit down to reward myself with a second beer for how responsible and mature I was. And then I’ll start to write a blog post, or get on Twitter, or edit a chapter, and, wham bam, five hours have gone by and I’ve forgotten all about the bed that still needs to be remade, and I’ll sleep on a white mattress with nothing but a comforter for a week until I’ve accumulated enough immaturity-points and sense of anxiety about my unmade bed to finish the job.

It’s to the point where I get confused when I’ve actually done things properly. Earlier this week I was searching for my work pants in the morning.

“Where the fuck are they? I can’t find them anywhere,” I said, searching for them all over the floor, in my laundry bag full of clean clothes as-yet-unfolded, and on my bed (which doubles as a storage area, because, really, who needs all that space?). When I finally opened the drawer where I normally tell myself I’ll put them (and then don’t), and found them folded neatly in a stack of clothes, I was shocked. I’d wasted about five minutes looking for them everywhere but where they were actually supposed to be.

The same thing happened last night to a pot on the stove. It was clean, but I had just used it that morning to make breakfast. I stared at it for a minute, trying to figure out why it was clean.

“Wow,” I thought to myself. “I must have actually cleaned it right after I used it. That’s so weird.”

This is why I call myself a ‘grownup’ rather than an ‘adult.’ I do not merit the latter term.

One day, I hope to achieve the level of responsibility and maturity that my child-self dreamed of. But until then, I’ll probably continue to be baffled about why there’s always more laundry to do, more dishes to wash, more floors to be swept and mopped, more bills to be paid.

Speaking of which, I’d better go finish that load of laundry I was doing. And maybe tonight I’ll actually pay that electricity bill.

But first, I’m gonna pop a beer.

*’Plumhead’ is the non-swear word I imposed on my father one night when he was driving me to a ballet class, and I overheard him swearing violently at another driver on the road. “Daddy,” I said, sagely, “why are all the bad drivers only on the road when YOU drive?”

[Untitled]: A Poem

I wrote this poem spur of the moment, as a very dear friend of mine recounted the many ways he loves his fiance. I am so honored to be a part of their story, and to my readers, I cannot honestly recount how deeply their story made me feel, for there are no words to describe true love. 

You tell me you love me;
tell me:
who else will show me
this bird?
this sky?

You tell me you love me;
tell me
who will tell our story
so hollow
so burned?

Paper, bent, into blue,
Swan, and cherry–
Simple dance
You will guide me
By my hands.

You tell me you love me,
[perfect turn]
who will tell this story
the moon?
the sky?

I still haven’t gotten the recording down, and I won’t bastardize it by sharing it before I’ve done it properly. I hope they recognize it for what it is, though I’m sure they will. And for the rest of the world, I trust you will see these words as the are: an homage to love, romantic or otherwise. 

This poem is dedicated to my friends, P & A. 

And It Rained: A Poem

Slake my thirst,
Dirty green of desert oaks,
Grey like ash,
You brittle clouds,
Waiting to break.

Tear in the sky,
You will sing
Against my psalms.

I open
My hands
To you.

 

 

Here in Paso Robles, it doesn’t rain a lot. But I was born and raised in a different part of the country, where rain is as integral a part of the daily routine as breakfast. I love it. And so when I felt the first drop of water against my outstretched hands on Saturday night, wandering drunkenly about the town with friends in tow, I almost couldn’t contain myself. The poem I wrote in my head that night faded as quickly as the alcohol did from my blood, but I got these few short verses out of it. This isn’t the poem I meant to write, but it’ll do, at least until the next time. 

Dear Society: Stop Telling Me To Have Kids

“You just haven’t met the right man yet.”

“Your clock will start ticking one of these days!”

“I know it seems like you don’t want kids now, but just give it time.”

“You’re too pretty/smart/nice NOT to have kids.”

“Trust me, you’ll want kids one day.”

“You’re going to be such a great mom!”

“Women who don’t give birth have higher rates of ovarian and breast cancer, so you should probably use those organs before it’s too late. You don’t want to get cancer, do you?”

Kind and well-intentioned statements, all, (well, okay, maybe not the last one – and I’m not making that one up, either) that nevertheless have been met with something less than gratitude on my part. I have never dealt especially well with people telling me what I should do and how I will feel, and I am even less happy about the continual insistence that I have virtually no free will on a matter of such import as whether or not to have a child.

When I was 19 and just beginning to discover my identity as a ‘woman’ rather than as a ‘girl’, a man told me that “A woman’s Everest to climb is having children.” A few beats before that, he’d said, “Men choose their own destinies.” Those around the table nodded their heads in agreement, while I sat seething, gnashing my teeth in anger. The implication was clear. Men decide who they are; women get to be moms. My reaction to the sum total of these statements was pretty simple: Fuck. That.

How dare you rob me of the ability to choose my identity? I wanted to ask.

My own personal reasons for not really wanting to have kids are pretty simple, but they’re also personal. What’s astonishing to me is how very few people seem to respect these reasons. How many times have I explained that aside from the fact that I am, plain and simple, terrified of pregnancy, there’s also the added weight of bringing a child into a world that really doesn’t need any more homo sapiens sapiens? How many times have I explained that being a mother was something I never aspired to, a goal in life I never needed, a role I don’t necessarily want to play? How many times have I repeated that while I love kids, I just don’t really see the need to make my own? And how many times have these legitimate justifications been met with the statements I quoted above, dismissing my rationale and acting as though it’s not my choice to make?

It is, I’ll grant, entirely possible that I’ll be a good mom (SHOULD I CHOOSE TO ACCEPT THAT POSITION IN LIFE). It is entirely possible that once I do have kids (SHOULD I CHOOSE TO DO SO) I will be a wonderful, caring mother. It is entirely possible that when I turn thirty my body will magically decide that I must have a baby right then, and that I will decide (EMPHASIS ON MY DECISION) to get pregnant and have a child. Or several. But that is my choice to make. And I don’t need the whole of society telling me that some preordained biological destiny will one day change the entire course of my life.

I mean, hell, wasn’t that the point of most of civilization: to set ourselves above the whimsy of our biology and obtain greater control over ourselves as thinking beings?

It is high time that we acknowledged that it’s no one’s decision but my own. That biology has no say in whether or not I’ll be a better parent than the father of my children. That we acknowledged that society has no say in whether or not I decide to adopt, or make my own babies, or foster children, or decide that the challenges and tribulations of parenting simply aren’t for me.

Until the day I make that decision, my body is my own. Don’t tell me what to do with it, don’t lay claim to my identity, and don’t judge me for the choice I make.

It’s not your decision.

Cultivating Your Writing Voice

At Jess West’s behest, I’ve written this article on what ‘voice’ is in writing, why it’s important, and how writers can cultivate it. Jess has written a post on the same subject, though we both tackled the issue from very different perspectives. Please check hers out as well. You can find it here.

At its most basic, writing is simply a combination of symbols that, together, evoke images, forms, or ideas. We think of pictographs or cuneiform as writing at its simplest – symbols that represent images which, together, take on more complex meanings. But at its most sophisticated, the act of writing becomes more than just a depiction of static forms. Through words, we tell stories, paint pictures, describe cultures, and create new worlds.

By stringing words together to make sentences, writers create their own distinctive and identifiable style of narration. This is called “voice”. It’s basically a different way of saying “style”, one that’s more particular to writing than the other arts (with the exception of music, obviously).

Here’s an example.

Robert Jordan saw them there on the slope, close to him now, and below he saw the road and the bridge and the long lines of vehicles below it. He was completely integrated now and he took a good long look at everything. Then he looked up at the sky. There were big white clouds in it. He touched the palm of his hand against the pine needles where he lay and he touched the bark of the pine trunk that he lay behind.

That’s Ernest Hemingway, from For Whom The Bell Tolls. You can tell, if you’ve read any of his works, that it’s his, just by the way he doesn’t use any commas, how he lists things somewhat repetitively, and how he lays these actions out so bare and raw without any adverb or emotion.

Here’s another.

In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease.

That’s Cormac McCarthy, from The Road. McCarthy draws some influence from Hemingway, and you can see it in the taut, terse quality of his writing. But he’s more expansive than Hemingway is – he takes more liberty with his vocabulary (“pilgrims” “flowstone” “granitic”) and though his sentences are still tight, they’re more fluid, less constraining.

By contrast, here’s a writer who’s almost defiantly self-indulgent when it comes to his words:

Starting with the mysterious and continuing fall of acoustic ceiling-tiles from their places in the subdorms’ drop rooms, inanimate objects have either been moved into or just out of nowhere appearing in wildly inappropriate places around [Enfield Tennis Academy] for the past couple months in a steadily accelerating and troubling cycle. Last week a grounds-crew lawnmower sitting silent and clean and somehow menacing in the middle of the dawn kitchen gave Ms. Clarke the fantods and resulted in Eggplant Parmesan for two suppers in a row, which sent shock waves.

This is the exuberantly verbose David Foster Wallace, from Infinite Jest. Note the way he writes casually and not always properly (“for the past couple months” instead of “couple of months” and “fantods”) and uses far more words than he really needs (“wildly innapropriate” “steadily accelerating and troubling” “silent and clean and somehow menacing”). In this case, the hyperbole makes the passage funnier, and contributes to the absurdism he’s trying to pass off as realism.

All three of these writers’ voices are so distinctive it would almost be possible to tell them apart in a sort of blind literary tasting. Give a long-time reader or a literary critic a passage from each of these writers and ask her to identify which writer authored which passage, and I have little doubt she’d be able to hit the mark all three times. Their voice are strong, unique, and charismatic. We want to follow the path they’ve written out for us.

So how is an aspiring writer to set about developing a voice of his own?

As I see it, developing your own writing voice is a bit like growing a garden.

First, you have to have strong, rich, healthy soil. This is the foundation upon which your voice is built. The soil is the organic matter you’ll till into your own distinctive sound. The soil is books – books by other authors, authors you respect and admire, whose writing styles you wish to emulate and capture. It doesn’t have to be just one person – in fact, it’s far, far better if it’s not just one writer. By synthesizing the sounds and words from many different writers, playwrights, poets, or screenwriters, you’ll be able to create a more innovative and distinct style of your own. If you try too hard to imitate just one person, you’ll end up sounding both unoriginal and dull – after all, the style you’re working so hard to perfect has already been perfected. Just as compost doesn’t work if you only feed it tomatoes, so your voice will wither if you only feed it Faulkner.

Then, you have to have hearty, diverse seeds. These are your own works. You have to invest in lots of them – from the very big to the very small – in order to make your voice strong universally. You should experiment with all sorts of different forms of writing, from flash fiction to poetry to novellas to one-act plays. These are your seeds, and as you plant them and begin to write them, you’ll learn how to turn all those works you’ve read into a strong and distinctive voice.

And of course, you have to sow your seeds, train your plants, water them, and weed, before you can harvest the fruits of your labor. This is work. This, as you might expect, is the hard part. In order to cultivate your voice, you have to write, and you have to write a lot. Those short stories, poems, plays, and novellas you started out with? You have to finish them. You have to revisit them and critique them and ask yourself how can this be better? before you can begin to harvest anything from your garden. You have to write. A lot.

There are some people, I suspect, who were born with words springing from their fingertips like Athena sprung from Zeus’ forehead. I might hazard that F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of these people, whose first novel was published at the tender young age of twenty-four. Or Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein was published when she was merely twenty years old. The aforementioned David Foster Wallace had his first novel, The Broom Of The System, published when he was twenty-five. There are others, I’m sure, who meet the same criteria. But for the rest of us mortals, cultivating our voice(s) is a more arduous process. It demands work, careful attention, and patience, much as does tending to our gardens.

It’s not easy. But the reward, I guarantee you, is worth the struggle. So go, till your garden, turn your compost, plant your seeds, and grow your voice. I’ll be working right alongside you.

 

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