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. 

20 thoughts on “Let Everything In”

  1. Nice post. It seems that life experience has a lot to do with voice, that it develops over time, as those experiences shape our lives and thinking. This is probably important for younger writers to remember. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t write, but just try to be patient. Modulating the voice for different situations and audiences is necessary. This blog tends to be conversational and intimate. The Yankee article on the doings in Newport was to inform and present images of life in the community and how it might be affected to a larger, more diverse audience. . As a longer work, The Town that Food Saved” was able to develop a more nuanced account of the various stakeholders; individuals, organizations, and groups. The question for a writer, “Does it work?” which usually means is it effective and does it feel right. And I think you are probably correct that in writing our voice finds us….

  2. There’s absolutely no question your voice is intended to continue being heard as I definitely infer from the outcome of your hayloft plunge yesterday. (I guess it’s time for some solid three-quarter inch plywood to cover that cut-out!)

  3. I”ve always been puzzled when my readers mention my “voice.” It is such a subjective thing. But I think it’s like happiness: if you go looking for it, you just mess things up. You just have to sit back and allow it to happen. Oh, also to write. Ben, I’m so happy to see your book and the donate button in the sidebar. When I first started reading your blog, I wanted to know immediately if you had anything out there for sale. Well done on getting that book on your homepage. And I’ll look forward to the others joining it soon.

  4. I agree. Your “voice” finds you. May I add? Read, read, read! Then as you say, write, write, write! Reading Strunk and White “Elements of Style”. If you understand and internalize those elements then you can let go and not need them. Or you’ll have them when you need them. For understanding of how to write non-fiction I love William Zinsser “On Writing Well.” – Renée-Lucie

    1. Yup, read, read, and read some more. Thanks for the reminder.

      Come to think of it, here’s another: Listen, listen, listen.

      Ya know, one of these days I should probably crack the cover on Elements of Style. I’m sure my editors would be most appreciative!

      1. I’ll send you my copy (and get another as time allows) if you’ll send me your address (think you put it in here some time back. Where?) This is something I can do in the way of the generosity business. Yah you betcha. – Renée-Lucie

  5. But you sure as hell better be interested. (magnificent)

    Write, jump, create, play, forgive, write, jump, create, play, forgive, write

    Your blog voice might be more successful on book pages if you give some guiding comments as to how you suspect the reader might read such a book. For example——- Warning: the voice contained herewithin is of high energy. You would (hopefully) not try to ready The Bible over a weekend. Please show similar restraint here and know when to walk, or jump, away.

    Melvin’s “mights” are a must for me.

    I am grateful for your landing. Garrison Keillor/Prairie Home Companion would likely treasure such a story. Imagine your clothes getting ripped off in the descent and your landing being Into the Night Kitchen. Cock a Doodle Doo!!

    Other than that, unremarkable.

  6. Oh my! You all (y’all down here in Virginia) really crack me up!

    I’m glad you landed safely. Might be the yoga benefits…or just more good luck.

    1. Been keeping up with the Yoga right regular. I can now not only touch my toes, but almost place my palms flat against the floor with my legs straight! Next up: Head stands!

  7. Thank you! The more thoughts on this subject, the better. That’s my current way of thinking. Reading yours I was reminded of Martha Graham’s words that grace my studio wall, the ones that end with the succinct advice: “keep the channel open”. To me, keeping the channel open involves a fair amount of personal “housekeeping”. I have found Cheryl Strayed’s advice (when writing as Sugar) to be particularly helpful in terms of that housecleaning. The less than perfect thoughts and feelings that I have about myself and my life guide me right to the stuff that needs attention. I’m getting used to following the feelings. Oh and perhaps hanging upside down is in order, you know to reverse the effects of the drop. Just an idea…

  8. I don’t know about all this stuff, man. Really, you believe it? You don’t think that it was just in you? You think somebody can develop an ability to write the way you do? Obviously people can improve what with all the things you mention and practice. But don’t you think that the lion’s share is a just a gift? A straight talent that some people are born with and can develop and some aren’t? I don’t know the answer here. I’m just saying. Maybe some people are born writers.

    1. Ben I thought this was one of your better posts of all time. It speaks straight to the heart of the matter insofar as writing is concerned. Eumaeus, I’d be careful about using the words “born writers” and “lion’s share”. It can lead people to think there’s no work involved and I really don’t think you mean to say that. What’s that thing about 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration? From where I sit in my “gifted” seat (art not writing), I find it is just that. I think you were just trying to pay Ben a compliment but it struck a sensitive chord in me. – Renée-Lucie

    2. I’m sure there’s some degree of gift or plain ole aptitude involved, no question about it. Sorta like, no matter how hard I try, I’ll never play guitar like Eddie Van Halen. On the other hand, if Eddie hadn’t practice something like 8 hrs/day when he was a kid, he wouldn’t have played like himself, either.

      1. There ya go. It’s the drive and the perserverance. The stick-to-it-tiveness that makes the gift work. And if there’s not much of a gift then the stick to it eventually can give it flight.

  9. As my singer songwriter cousin said, you don’t write the songs, the songs write you. And Ben, you will always land on your feet….

  10. Perhaps the gift of writing well is the spark but the daily practice is what hones it into a gift for others. SO glad you landed upright so we can continue to gifted with your words. Thanks, Ben.

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