Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Crisis of Voice

Back when I wrote crime, my voice came easily.  Starting with "Hero Cop," I just did my best Frank Miller impersonation.  Over time that evolved into the complicated dialect of Crimson City Blues, which even had it's own thesaurus that Dwight and I lovingly compiled over late-night trips to The Spot and bottles of red wine on the dirty grey couch of my basement apartment.  We had a dozen synonyms each for the two words that appeared most: drinking/drunk ("slung low" was my favorite; it appears in "Roderick and the Kid") and prostitute ("Pink Pants," "Lap Girl").  It was fun.

(Damn it, I miss Dwight.  That guy could write a sentence that could give you a hard-on.  He had this wonderfully cold style, like feeling breath on the back of your neck when you swear to Christ you're all alone.  It was a thing of brutal beauty and if his story "Bad Cop"--which absolutely killed me to take out of Crimson City Blues when we split--ever comes out as a book, I'll be first in line to buy a hardcover copy even though I doubt he'll sign it)

Point is, every phrase in that book was carved out of marble.  If you go back and read the whole series, you'll notice how precise every word is.  I read it now and I cannot believe I wrote some of that.

I can't do that anymore and it's giving me a complex.

I'm going to blame grad school.  I had some great mentors and workshop leaders who encouraged me to better develop my unique style, but a few of them attempted to homogenized my voice.  One objected to my snarky, bittersweet style, saying that all I did was "shit all over people" (hey, it worked for Tucker Max, who I hate but who made a lot of money with that style) another fussed over my use of the word "addiction" as though he alone owned and defined the word.  I haven't completed a piece of CNF (that wasn't a blog post) since.  And while both of them had valid points that I took to heart so much it crippled me, one has to wonder if it's a mentor's place to completely shut down a style they personally object to for the so-called "betterment" of the student.

It's tough to say what will sell and what won't, and I'm completely against the "cheerleader" style of mentoring--after all, I didn't pay $25 large to have someone smile at me and tell me I'm great.  I have a mother, thank you.  But I think a good mentor should be able to help you develop your voice, as it's on the page, without interjecting their personality into it.

As for my fiction, I feel like it's all just a bunch of words on a page.  Phrases feel like I've written them a million times, and when I read Raymond Chandler or Tom Perrotta or Lauren Groff I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how the hell they do it.  How do they craft these phrases, like glass birds?  (Lovingly and over five years, I imagine).  Even when I get work back from my writing partner, I can look at his work and say, "yep, that's his."  It's as though he invented the sentence for his own personal use.  Mine just sort of lay there, like dead fish.



  1. I have found, in my post grad school life, that I swing through "stages" in my creative writing. I'm doing a lot of poetry right now, and I find prose very difficult. Before that, everything that came out was analytical prose. I haven't felt compelled to write prose fiction in several years now. When I try to force it, it reads exactly like dead fish.

    Try something new, and trust your intuition. You've got a fine, clearvoiced style on this blog. Maybe it's time to do more creative non-fiction?

  2. Mentoring is a tricky thing. If writing is thought etched in symbol, then markup is an attempt to change your mind. It's a rare thing to suggest incisively without allowing personal voice to overshadow what the mentee presents.

    Still, that's all besides the point. Your voice is made stronger by exercising it. Even if you hit a lot of flat notes to start ... the way out is through.

  3. You guys are rad--thanks for the support!