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You Sure As Hell Better Be Interested

Someone said to me lately that my writing here has improved in recent months, and I was sort of embarrassed at how good that made me feel, probably because in truth I have been trying in recent months, at least at those time when I’m willing to try. This is something new for me. I know this contradicts what I wrote recently, about my lack of enthusiasm for the craft, but so be it. I am human, therefore I contradict myself. Besides, the older I get, the more clearly I understand how two seemingly disparate truths can co-exist without diminishing one another.

I’ve long suspected that writing is one of those things that can’t really be taught. I mean, certain aspects can be learned, little tips and techniques and whatnot, but at its core, good writing springs from a place that does not fall under the sway of human will and intervention. But now I’m wavering in this belief, at least a bit. I think maybe my assumption came from my own laziness, my own unwillingness to really apply myself to those interventions.

Anyway. All this made me think of a post I wrote a while back, which in the spirit of the aforementioned laziness, I offer again. I’m not even sure I agree with all of it anymore, but I still think there’s some value in it.

•   •    •

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. 

33 thoughts on “You Sure As Hell Better Be Interested”

  1. Thanks for this. I needed to hear this today. I’ve been writing off and on for 20 years (can’t believe I’m old enough to say that). Most recently, I write on my blog. There, often, I backspace, wondering if my words will offend, or if they will be misunderstood by people not living my life. But these words–they’re true for me. My life–it is also true for me. So why would I not tell it like it is? Because I am afraid. Oh, sometimes I’m cocky and say I’m not. I’ll use all kinds of quippy little memes to imply I’m not afraid of what others will think of my writing, which is, in essence, what they will think of me, my life. But I am afraid. So I waiver between jubilance and extreme introversion, between wanting to share the joy of my life and feeling intensely private.

    Anyway, thanks for this post, and all your posts. I love your “voice” and hearing about your life. As worldschoolers and frequent travelers with our four kids, mine is just as weird, but different.

    Domini

  2. I think you’ve probably hit the nail on the head with the
    unselfconsciousness factor. Nice post all around. You’re welcome.

  3. I’ve been thinking of this issue of writing and “voice” a lot lately. When I milk the goats, go for a walk, shovel manure, feed the pigs: I “write” in my head, and I have done this ever since I was old enough to write and read by myself. I remember walking through the German countryside with my dog, writing stories and stories and stories in my head.

    And now, as an adult, I still do it – narrating snippets of what’s going on in the moment, what I’m thinking about, telling stories of my life. It sounds a little narcissistic and self-involved, now that I type this here, but that’s the truth.

    I think writing my blog consistently for years now has honed this “voice”: I actually have stories to tell, people want to know about my life, so I write in my head whatever I do to tell my readers about my unconventional lifestyle, my values, etc. I think it really helps to have an audience who loves reading my stuff. Imagine that.

    Also: you are totally right about being unafraid. English is my second language, and so I’m a little shy about writing, but not much. I basically let it all hang out, and it comes from my heart.

      1. I wasn’t. I like it.

        But if I was, I think I’d be justified… you make fun of me all the time

        >

  4. Thanks for posting that again. It’s good.

    Being from Iowa (and you know that Gertrude Stein said now I have to be “brilliant and subtle and well taken care of… and really strange” because I’m from Iowa) I was made aware of The Writer’s Workshop at Iowa City. I knew a handful of people who got in. I never got in. I didn’t want to get in because I was too intimidated. People like Ray Carver went there. How can one compete with those folks much less sit in the chair next to them and speak up in class or even offer assignments for critique? It was all in my head. It’s always in my head. I made up a reason to not try because I had no confidence in myself. All sorts of reasons.

    I believe that when you’re young you have to be driven to write and a little bit self centered. That overrides the fear. Now that I’m old I can write because I feel like it and who cares if anyone likes it? I have food on the table. So far. And besides the Grim Reaper is not far off. He is an ally that shows me the importance of living my dharma every day every minute.

    I, too, feel that a lot of writing can’t be taught and I, too, feel it can be nurtured. Much like the immersion in music of Mozart at a very young age. And then The Calling comes in. So we do what we do. At some point we might make the decision to do whatever the hell we want to do. Or not. Because Life is short and there’s always plenty of time to do errands. But if that’s what floats your boat just do it.

    A graveyard in Wales informed me how important we all are. No one will remember who we are in 600 years. Unless you’re Hitler or Mother Teresa and last time I checked I’m neither. So I decided to do what I do and if that’s write and paint badly because I enjoy it, well, dammit all, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

    As always Ben thanks for your inspiring words.

    1. Damn. I had this little voice go Yadda Yadda just before I hit “post” and I should have listened to it. My apologies. At the very least I should have edited about half of that comment out.

      1. Renee, I’m glad you didn’t edit your comment. Editing is an aspect of writing that I find curious. How do you know if you’re editing the good stuff out? Sometimes, it’s nice to see how someone arrives at a thought or a conclusion rather than have it all neatly tied up in a bundle from the start. Maybe not exactly stream-of-conciousness style but something similar. Like when you have a conversation with someone and they say, “Oh, that reminds me of xyz” and you think, “How in the world did you get from what I was talking about to that?” The route of thought is always interesting.

      2. Yes, how do you know? Very good question. This is part and parcel to what Ben is writing about in this post. Editing is a part of writing because the point of editing is to eliminate what is not necessary to communicate one’s idea. The writer wants his reader to understand him. Unless you’re James Joyce and it’s Finnegan’s Wake. 😉

      3. There are no good writers, only good editors. Not sure who said that originally, but there’s some real truth to it.

        When I say I’ve been trying to improve my writing, that’s actually what I mean… rather than post immediately, I’m giving it a little time, then going back over it. Mostly, the changes are minor, but I think they make a difference.

        >

  5. “I’ve long suspected that writing is one of those things that can’t really be taught.”

    Possibly more accurate is saying the love of and the desire to write can’t be taught. I think learning the craft part is always possible, but you have to have the soul. Same for anything I guess.

  6. We lost a great musician/songwriter the other day in Guy Clark.
    Many of the comments today reminded me of this song in that we need to “Trust our Cape.” Check out the lyrics.

      1. Holy crap. Where have I been? See, see? This is The Music Planet. It’s what we as humans do best. Sigh. I wish I hadn’t been such a butt and practiced my instruments more. Sheesh could be a lifetime of regret so I’d better not go there. It is what it is and thanks for offering Guy Clark! Better late in discovering than never.

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