Many years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. I love this book. I read it and was so delighted, I had to immediately read it again. The friend who gave me the book told me she liked it because Jerome wrote the way I told stories. That was definitely one of the greatest compliments I’d ever been given, but it also got me thinking.
She said he wrote the way I spoke, not the way I wrote. Important distinction. Because at that time I most definitely didn’t write in my voice. I don’t know whose voice I was using, but it definitely wasn’t mine. I read through my old journals and read my old stories, and sometimes I really have to cringe. Oh, in this one I’m clearly heavily influenced by James Simon Kunen (The Strawberry Statement). In this one I’m trying to be Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth). And here I’m trying on a little Toni Cade Bambara (Gorilla, My Love). Anyone’s voice had to be better than mine, right? I was just plain old me. Those other voices belonged to “real” writers. So, if I could write like them, I would sound like a real writer, too.
In truth, I don’t think I speak or write anything like Jerome K. Jerome. But I still love the compliment. And I love it not only because I love Jerome’s book, but because being pushed to see and acknowledge the extreme disconnect between the way I spoke and the way I chose to put words on the page was so important for me.
Realizing that I wasn’t myself on the page was eye-opening, but wasn’t easy to fix. I had to learn to hear myself, had to learn what tools I like to use for writing, had to learn to be still and quiet and let the words come. And I had to accept — and had to believe — that other writers’ voices weren’t the ticket to my becoming a “real” writer.
I still fall in love with the voices of writers who move me … but I don’t assume them, don’t suddenly find my stories sounding suspiciously like whatever book I’ve just finished.
Today, I write like myself. So much so that sometimes it’s hard to shut up long enough to hear the way my characters need to express themselves. I like that my voice is so very much mine, that it is clear and distinctive enough that people can recognize me on the page. It’s taken me a long time to get here. And , as much as I’ve enjoyed the ride, I’m so glad to have arrived.
It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!