Let Everything In

My view right now

Other than dropping trapdoor-like through the second story floor of Melvin’s barn while retrieving a round bale, only to find myself plunging directly into the milking parlor below to land amongst a row of startled yearling heifers, yesterday was relatively unremarkable.

I landed directly on my feet, and stood there in stunned silence for a moment, while Melvin and Janet and the boys stared in wide-eyed wonder, unsure of whether to burst into laughter or call an ambulance. Fortunately, for me everything was pretty much exactly the same. I was just 10-feet lower than I’d been a quarter-second prior, courtesy of the fact that like most old barns, Melvin’s features a variety of boarded-over cut-outs, the known purpose of which died with one previous owner or another. Only, this cut out was wasn’t so much boarded-over, as cardboarded-over (it wasn’t literally cardboard, but some sort flimsy, long discarded quarter-inch building board), with the intention of keeping the cold air of the unheated upper floor from sinking into the milk room. Melvin knew where the hole was. Melvin typically retrieves the bales. At one point, months ago, Melvin had even drawn my attention to the hole, saying something like “you might not want to step there.” Ergo, the covering need not bear a human’s weight.

I’ve never really liked being told what to do, so I went ahead and stepped where I damn well pleased.

Anyway. I got a great question via email last night, and although I was actually planning to take the day away from this space, this question really got me thinking. Besides, I’m so grateful to have survived last night’s adventure with nary a scratch that I’m feeling particularly delighted with life, which I’ve found is generally a good frame of mind from which to answer questions.

How did you go about developing your ‘voice’?  Your writing comes across as very “voice-y” (if that’s a word).  I’m guessing it comes down to lots of practice, lots of blog posts, 10,000 hours, polishing, perfecting, sweating, just writing, fewer distractions, etc. It may not be a conscious thing anyway, how that develops.

Just wanted to get a quick thought on that. Maybe though you just came out of the womb with a keyboard in hand, ready to go.

And I really loved this part of the email, which isn’t a question, but I still wanted to share:

I count storytelling as the purest form of manufacturing. Out of such simple inputs come these great big, glorious outputs, more powerful than any car, airplane, or building.

Back to the question. How does one develop voice in his or her writing? Well, here’s one thing: People often talk about writers “finding their voice,” but I’ve never really understood that. I don’t think you can “find” your voice, because the moment you go looking for your voice, you’re screwed. It’s like looking for love, or for a contact lens in a lake. I mean, it might happen, but it ain’t too friggin’ likely.

To my way of thinking, your voice finds you. And it finds you through everything you do and all the influences that surround you. The music you listen to. The friends you keep. Where you live. The people you love. What you read, of course. And on and on and on. My family is in my written voice. Melvin and his barn with the hole I fell through last night. Our cows. This house. My affection for this land. Lately, Jason Isbell. Certainly, my parents. The simple fact that I’m about to go hand milk a cow in five-degree-below-zero weather. That’s all in my voice.

But of course these influences don’t just spring forth fully formed into good or even not-so-good writing (and lord knows, I’ve produced my share of the latter). You do have to write. You have to write a lot. I think, most importantly, you have to become as close to unselfconscious as you can become, because when you get to that place, that’s when your voice will make itself truly known.

Another thing: In my experience, voice is not static. My voice is somewhat (though not entirely) different in this space than it is in my magazine articles, or books. I think that’s because it’s simply too exhausting for both the reader and myself to carry the energy and pacing of these shorter blog posts into longer work. I’ve tried, and it just doesn’t work. I sort of wish it did, because I most enjoy the voice that comes through in this space. Maybe someday I’ll learn how to bring it to the page.

And voice is always evolving. I’m sure there are some foundational aspects that will stay with me for my entire life, but I’m equally sure that my writing voice will change over the years. Maybe for the better; maybe not. I don’t know that I can control it, really. The only thing I know is that if I can remain as unselfconscious as possible and keep on talking (remembering that often it’s the fewest words that say the most), folks just might want to hear my stories.

To sum it all up. Voice: Don’t go looking. Be unafraid. Write. And let everything in.

Hope this helps.

Addendum: I was thinking about this a bit more during chores and realized two things. First, my advice to “be unafraid” is a bit flip. On some level or another, I think everybody’s afraid of revealing themselves through their writing (or otherwise). So maybe it’s more accurate to say “be less afraid.” And remember that just as fear is learned, so is fearlessness. Or increased fearlessness. 

Second, I don’t think you have to be either happy or unhappy to write well. But you sure as hell better be interested. 


Turn it Into a Party

Keeping Penny company while she milks
Keeping Penny company while she milks

While luck is very prominent here, as there is so much of which we are unaware, this topic seems to be also about forgiveness of oneself and partner. Our society seems to ask that we study and be experts before we jump. “Think before you speak” has been taken too far and speaking/jumping has become a source of disappointment and blame. It is not a space from which one can easily recover, as forgiveness seems harder to come by than in the past. There was a time when we did not call in the experts to do the jumping for us.I wonder, what would be the impact on our nation’s obesity epidemic if all individuals suddenly understood that they did not need the expert knowledge of dietitians and trainers. Lower expectations, relieving ourselves and thus not need to become professional athletes or professional anything elses. Suddenly, you can sing and dance, jump, and, gulp, Leave a Reply.

Ya know, I was just thinking I didn’t really have nothing worthwhile to say today and besides which I’ve got paying work aplenty wanting my attention, never mind the list of farm-related tasks Penny reeled off at breakfast whilst outside the temperature slowly dragged its sorry ass out of the double-digit below zero range. Ah, nine below! Finally, a warm spell!

I think Peter makes a great point about forgiveness of one’s self and one’s failures, and it’s not something I mentioned much in yesterday’s post. But jeezum and by gum and whatnot, this place is full of failure. It’s a teeming mess of mistakes and missteps and false starts for which Penny and I have had to forgive ourselves over and over again, lest the weight of it all crush us into submission.

I exaggerate a bit, of course, but it’s not entirely untrue. I’m reminded of it every winter, when I try – just as I did the winter before (and the winter before that) – to fully close the window I installed so drastically out-of-square. And just as I did the winter before (and the winter before that), I fail, and resolve yet again to pull the trim, cut the nails that hold the window in place, and re-shim the damn thing.

Or up by the barn, the stupid platform we built that was going to be the floor of the new milking room that never got built because right about the time we finished the floor, we realized – for reasons that are far too complex to explain here – that it was a ridiculous arrangement. And so now we’ve got this platform rotting away and one of these days I’ve gotta tear it out. I just can’t quite bring myself to do it yet; truthfully, I need to get a little more distance from the absurdity of the situation.

This whole place is full of these sort of quirks and missteps, many the result of jumping without thinking, of blithely assuming we would prevail over (or at the very least muddle through) whatever situation we faced. Maybe it’s confidence; perhaps, at times, it trips that thin line and becomes arrogance. I do wonder if maybe I should worry about failing a bit more often than I do, that perhaps I’d actually be better off spending more time thinking about jumping, than actually jumping. I’ve always been this way, and while Penny is something of a tempering influence, she’s not exactly immune to excitement and “git r’ dun-ism.”

The flip side of all this is precisely what Peter points out: That our culture has, in general, become overly dependent on so-called “experts.” Broadly speaking, we have become deskilled and unconfident to the point of near-helplessness. Because if you strip away all the 21st century socioeconomic artifice and get right down to the brass tacks of food and shelter and water and warmth, the overwhelming majority of Americans would be well and truly forked. Hell, I bet most of us can’t hardly change a flat tire, anymore.

The reasons for this helplessness are multitude, and are built into practically every demographic trend of the past century. You can’t coax folks away from the land with promises of moneyed prosperity and expect them to retain the land-based skills that are no longer economically viable. You can’t structure an economy to reward specialization and industrial production and expect people to maintain their connection to the fundamentals of their well-being. The further away from these fundamentals we get, the less confidence we have in our abilities to attain them. And I wonder if it’s not just confidence in these particular skills, but a generalized confidence that depends on us feeling as if we are, in some fundamental way, useful.

Of course as we lose confidence, we gain fear. Fear of stepping outside the prescribed boundaries. Fear of turning against the crushing tide of the very trends that are making us fearful. Fear of jumping.

There are plenty of times when I feel as if I lack confidence, when I feel as if what I do is, in one way or another, inadequate. When a real carpenter comes into our house, someone with the skills to truly craft a home, rather than just build one, I can’t quite get over the sense that he or she is quietly noting the many flaws of our humble shelter. Hah! Look at that out-of-square window. Man, Hewitt sure is a boob of a builder. Oh, my: They used spikes to pin those beams together! Philistines! I could go on. And on. But the truth is, it’s just not that helpful. It does nothing to further our pursuit of living our lives as we wish to live them. I forgave myself that out-of-square window years ago. So did Penny. And those spikes, they work just fine. Better yet, we drove ‘em ourselves. I remember it well. It made our shoulders wicked sore, but it was real fun.

Soon enough, I’ll forgive myself that stupid milking room floor and rip it down. We’ll pile up all the tore-up wood, have some friends over, and spark up one hell of a fire. We’ll laugh at our stupid mistake and our friends will laugh with (at?) us and maybe we’ll cook up some sausages or something. We might even break out some instruments and play some music. I’m still working on gaining the confidence to sing in front of others, but I’m getting there, and maybe by then I’ll be ready to belt out a tune or two.

You know, I think that might be the best thing to do with failure: Turn it into a party.