Write from your authentic voice

Quite awhile ago, I introduced this thing called the Fumbling for Words Writers’ Club. And then life got a little wacky and I found myself treading water just to stay afloat. Before you know it, the Writers’ Club went the way of the dodo bird.

Lately, though, several things have happened that helped convince me to revive that sad little dodo bird. A few people showed up on the Writers’ Club page expressing interest, I got hired to be a bonafide writing teacher, and a couple of friends asked me for writing advice. Okay, so… I get the message… writing advice is one of those things I’m SUPPOSED to share rather than keep it to myself.

The piece of advice that has been closest to my heart lately – the piece that I shared with the friend who asked me for feedback on her blog and the one who asked me to critique the first draft of her memoir – is this…

Write from your authentic voice. 

This is especially true for blogs, memoirs, personal essays, etc. Nobody wants to read your story if there is nothing unique about the voice it’s written in. Nobody wants to read a perfectly polished memoir that has no heart. If you want to write well, you have to be prepared to give away a piece of your heart.

As a professional communicator, I’ve done a lot of writing from other people’s voices (speeches, “quoting” the experts for news releases and articles, etc.), so sometimes it’s hard to remember what my own voice is. That’s part of the reason I blog – to remind myself.

How do you find your authentic voice? Practice, practice, practice. That’s the bottom line. You won’t find it if you don’t commit to it. Shitty first drafts, mediocre second drafts, third, fourth… you get the picture. It takes work. And a healthy dose of blood, sweat, and tears.

Here are a few tips to take with you as you practice:

1. Forget what your grammar school teacher taught you. Well, that’s not entirely true – remember it, but then ignore it. A good writer knows the rules, but is very adept at breaking them. A good grammar teacher would never let you get away with starting a sentence with “but” or “and”, for example. But that’s just what I’m suggesting you do. Your writing has to flow in a natural way that feels right for you, not your grammar school teacher. If grammar makes it feel too formal and stilted, then work around the rules. (I know, I know… it can be HARD to break the rules for those of us who are natural rule-followers! Just ask my daughters about how laborious my text messages are because I actually spell things out and use punctuation!)

2. Say shit if your mouth is full of it. If you like spicy language or clever idioms, use them, damn it! (But not too much, please. They get old after awhile.) Your writing has to reflect a piece of you, so let the reader see the way you would talk if you were telling them a story. Don’t polish too much. (That doesn’t mean “don’t edit”, it just means “don’t take the personality out of it when you’re editing”.)

3. Be as vulnerable as you can be. This is really, really important. If you want to be authentic, you have to admit some of the tough stuff – like what makes you cry, how you feel when you look in the mirror, and how much it hurts when a friend betrays you. It even means showing your dark side – like the petty things you do for revenge, for example. You don’t have to spill every detail (it’s still important to protect people we love, for example), but the reader needs to know that you are REAL and human and that life sucks sometimes. If your writing sounds like your therapist’s analysis of a situation rather than what’s really going on in your gut, rewrite!

4. Throw away all of the flowery words. Oh I KNOW how much you want to show off your big vocabulary and your really smart analysis of a situation, but DON’T. Use simple, accessible language. Give the reader an easy entry point. If they have to run for a dictionary, they’ll probably forget to come back. That doesn’t mean you should assume your readers are stupid (they’re not), but don’t try to act like you’re smarter than they are. Treat it like a conversation and write like you would speak. (And if you’re a professor and you normally use big flowery words, then PLEASE dumb it down for the rest of us!)

5. Pick a reader and write for him/her. Don’t try to please everyone, because that’s when your writing will become bland. It happens to me all the time – when I start to think of the broad range of people who read my blog (friends, family, work colleagues, strangers), I start to freeze up because I get worried how different people will intepret it. If it helps, picture one of your favourite people reading your blog/book/essay. Even better – write for yourself. Write to make your primary reader – YOU – happy, and forget about everyone else. Practice being a good reader and give yourself constructive feedback.

6. Read what you’ve written out loud. There has to be a smooth, even flow to your writing, so pretend you’re at a public reading and read it out loud. If it feels choppy and uneven, rewrite it. If you can’t put your personality and your own intonation into it when you read it, change it. If it sounds like a speech a politician might give, or something your grammar school teacher would have written… ummm… ditch that baby and start over again!

And now for a little of that practice…

Tell a story to your best friend. Think of something that happened yesterday or last week (or make something up) that made you laugh or cry, and then pretend you’re sitting down over a steamy chai latte telling your favourite person all about it. Use the words, phrases, and tone that you would use if you were actually speaking. Be honest, vulnerable, and a little messy. If you want, turn it into a dialogue with your friend’s response as part of it.

If you want to play along, feel free to add your piece to the comments, or put it in your blog and then make sure to tell us about it here so that we can visit.

Introducing… the Fumbling for Words Writers’ Club!

Okay… so… I’m writing a book! It’s true, I am. I’m not going to give you many details yet, but for now I’ll say that it’s part memoir and part “travel companion”.

As every good athlete/actor/performer/dancer/etc. knows, hitting the mark on the final performance means you have to practice, practice, PRACTICE! In the case of writing, you have to write a whole lot of “shitty first drafts”, and sometimes it’s good to write something completely different from your focus material, just to stretch your muscles.

So here’s the thing – I could use your company in this writing journey! I’m creating a “writers’ club” here on this ol’ blog to help motivate me to practice. On a weekly (or so – I’m not very good at consistency) basis, I’m going to throw out a writing prompt for anyone who wants to practice along with me. What you do with it is totally optional – post it on your blog, keep it in your private journal, leave it in the comments, tweet it in 140 characters – your choice. I’m going to post my response on this blog, and if you post yours in a public place, leave a comment and let us all know where we can find it so we can encourage each other.

There aren’t really any rules, but here are some guidelines:

  • This is about practice not perfection. Write whatever comes to mind in response to the prompt. Don’t spend a lot of time editing – just try to let the thoughts flow and see what happens when you play with words.
  • I’ll try to give a time frame (eg. write for 5 minutes without stopping), or approximate length (eg. 2 paragraphs). This isn’t about long essays or dreary writing assignments, but rather about playing with ideas, senses, descriptions, etc.
  • Since this is a “club”, let’s try to visit the other members to offer them encouragement and let them know they’re not alone in this writing journey.
  • This is mostly about practicing, so we won’t do a lot of critiquing, but if you want to offer editing advice/critiques (along with encouragement), be sure to do it in a gentle and respectful way. (Note: it may be best to do that via email rather than in public comments, especially if it’s someone you don’t know very well.)

If you’re joining (even if you’ll only be writing once in awhile), I’d be thrilled if you’d grab a button, put it on your blog, and link it to this URL:  http://fumblingforwords.com/writing/fumbling-for-words-writers-club/ 

Without further ado, let’s get on with it…

Fumbling For Words Writers’ Club – Writing Prompt #1

Let’s start with a memory. Think about some kind of food you enjoyed eating as a child. Who prepared it for you? What did it taste like? What was it like to anticipate it while the person was preparing it? Think about the senses involved – taste, touch, smell, sight, sound. Start with “I remember…” Any time you get stumped, just start the next sentence with “I remember…” and keep going. Try to remember the old adage – “show, don’t tell”.

Write for 5 minutes. Go! Write!

And here’s mine… (with no editing, just writing “off the top of my head”)

I remember coming home to the sweet yeasty smell when Mom was baking buns. I remember the big aluminum bowl – black with white speckles – overflowing with bun dough. I remember the edges of the dough sagging like an old woman’s boobs over the edge of the bowl. I remember pinching just a little piece off the nipple, thinking Mom wouldn’t notice the theft. I remember the gooey not-quite-good-but-almost-perfect taste of the dough. 

I remember the old checkered cloth and tattered sheet of plastic she covered the dough with while it rose. I remember the way she always pulled the hair away from her face with the blue paint-spattered scarf. I remember her strong hands plunging into the dough, pounding, kneading, pounding, kneading. I remember the expert movement of her hands as each ball of dough squeezed out between her fingers into a perfect symmetrical sphere. I remember every surface in the kitchen covered in baking sheets full of uniform, rising buns. I remember the first pan of golden brown buns emerging from the oven.

I remember plunging a knife into a steaming hot bun, slathering on the butter and sticky strawberry freezer jam. I remember the melting butter dripping down my fingers. I remember the cool fruity sweetness on the warm soft flesh.

I remember the feeling of contentment and “a little too full” after just one more fresh bun.

p.s. Today’s writing prompt was adapted from Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg.

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