Bewildering Stories

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Finding a Writing Voice

by David H Fears

I trained a few decades ago to be a teacher, never realizing that I would chase the dollar for three decades before teaching. If you’d told me back then I’d teach writing, or computers or any other such pursuit, I would have laughed. Life surprises the longer you stick around. Ever wonder why we get so wise just when it’s time to check out? Nature doesn’t waste anything, not even an atom.

I recently completed a masters degree in education (I was older than any of my professors) and did my thesis work researching the degree of writing apprehension and belief in myths about writing by adults at my college. I poured through a lot of dusty research and theory, which helped my understanding of composing, drafting and revising.

I’d begun writing fiction before pursuing the masters, and the studies focused my fiction, too. I use fiction elements even when teaching basic college writing. Simply put, I believe anyone can do it. Write well, that is. Mostly adults are the victims of poor writing instruction. Mostly by unlearning what we know can we then begin to understand how to progress.

We each have a story to tell, many stories. Every person is unique; every one is talented by virtue of being human; every one has something important to say; not everyone is willing to invest the effort and time to develop good writing skills and a writing “voice.” Writers often search high and low for voice, as if they only have one. Just as we adopt different roles for different audiences and settings, so we adopt different voices to tell different stories.

But after a few years of writing, of working at it hard, of thinking and dissecting elements of the craft, one major voice (and a few minor ones) emerged for me, and, I believe, this usually happens for anyone who stays with the craft. It is the one voice most natural to draft with, a way of thinking (because writing is thinking) and discovering what one knows and what one wants to say.

In my twenties I pushed a smelly cart of angst around, as many twenty-somethings do. Smelly because most of it was doo-doo. I wanted to write stories — not just fun stories, or stories about my grandmother, but epic, meaningful, profound stories. Yet profundity doesn’t arrive to most twenty-somethings, and my larva-like efforts at fiction then were laughable. My core had not yet been formed, my experiences were in front of me, my voice undeveloped. I was profoundly without anything profound to say. A lot of “edgy” and “with it” fiction written by twenty-somethings is like this today.

So, life happened to me. The stories built up, the experiences happened; I lived life and began over again a couple of times before I knew I could, knew I had to, write, before I felt the foundation settling in on my outlook. With my middle age and the turn of the millennium, fiction seemed to gush from me. Computers helped, since I’d been e-mailing and diddling with message boards for a few years, tapping out words daily, on some message board or in letters or in this venue or that. My fingers were familiar with the QWERTY setup. My ass was to chair and it didn’t feel too awkward there. Like scales for a novice pianist, maybe, this daily writing on the Internet gave me a basis of discipline.

When I wrote my first story in 2000, my lack of skills became painfully obvious, so I became obsessed with learning the craft. I like to improve at what I do, which is why I quit golf. I still am improving at the craft, for who can learn it all? My voice emerged after 50 stories or so, and now I’m past 85, a couple of novels, even though I swore I’d never want to do that, give so many months of my life to one story. Short stories are my bag, I figured. Maybe. I’m still learning.

Elmore Leonard’s stuff is front and center on my reading study now. Amazing. He struggled 30 years and then hit it. I’ve also read Raymond Chandler, much of Hammett, John D. MacDonald, and a few others of the pulp-noirish bent. I was enthralled by the purity of Carver, the depth of Flannery O’Connor, Cheever, on and on through a hundred short-story writers.

Still, I feel I don’t read enough. When I wrote the second novel in 40 days, I discovered what living a promise and daily discipline could achieve. Like training for a marathon, where x number of miles per week are necessary. I’ve been revising that second novel for six months. I like mysteries and also literary stuff. I like to see them mixed well, where you cannot say whether a story is plot-driven or character-driven, because the mix is so good. Richard Ford is high on my list right now, but so is Italo Calvino and Alice Munro. Not much in common amongst those three — except, perhaps a strong voice.

Humans are capable of achieving far more than they think they’re able. When I ran in 10- and 15-k races, I learned I could go 4X farther than my body told me I could; when I write I’ve learned I can be 4X better than I’m writing now, however good I might think I am. In both cases there’s a price, running or writing. But, I always learn more than my students (my secret). I find out what I know, who I am, what’s most important in life through the discovery of writing. When I begin a story I have little or no idea where it’s going. But then, neither do my readers.

When you read this, no doubt I’ll want to revise it again. If I read it in a year, no doubt I’ll want to cut it all and begin again. That’s the beauty of writing — it’s never final. Unlike speech, when we say something, we can never take it back, we can only add to it. Writing can be revised.

Copyright © 2005 by David H Fears

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