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Don't whisper, don't blather! The Literary Ladies on finding your voice
By Nava Atlas
When the movie Dirty Dancing (1987) came out, I was often told that I resembled “Baby,” the lead female character played by Jennifer Grey. If I chose to sit in a corner at a restaurant or at a gathering, friends sometimes delivered the film’s iconic line “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” thinking that they were being extremely hilarious. But I liked corners, and I still do. They’re cozy, and it’s easy to blend into the woodwork if I’m in the mood to hide. But putting oneself in a corner, either in the real world or when it comes to the printed page, is the equivalent of whispering. Women tend to do that a lot, especially when we’re not sure of our own voices.
When I started working on The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, a collection of first-person narratives by classic women authors on their experiences and challenges as writers, I was content to whisper in the margins of the pages of the book. Alongside the musings of twelve authors whose works we know and love (Alcott, Austen, Brontë, Alcott, Wharton, Woolf, and six others), my role was to comment on how their challenges and experiences in times past still resonate with contemporary women who write. Since I myself designed the pages as well, I set my comments in tiny type in whatever corners of the page I could hide them in. That all ended when the book found a publisher, and the editor firmly told me I could no longer whisper in the corner, metaphorically nor literally. My words, he decreed, had to have equal weight as those of my literary foremothers.
At first, raising my voice above a whisper wasn’t easy. All those familiar “Who do you think you are...” demons rushed in to fill the void in my mind where confidence should have been firmly in place. Finding your voice is a writing directive that teeters on being a cliché, it’s so often invoked. Yet, what’s more important than developing a distinctive personality on the printed page? Without a firm grip on voice, you’re left either with whispering shyly, or its flip side, the equally fatal flaw of blathering (the literary equivalent of nervous chatter)—churning out overwrought, florid prose with no self-editing, little self-censoring, and being completely defensive when an editor offers solid suggestions on shaping and refining prose with an objective eye. Even though your words flow out in torrents, your voice doesn’t sound confident or unique, but more like that relative that everyone has—the one who never knows when to stop talking. Here are a few thoughts on finding one’s voice from three of the Literary Ladies:
“I found that newspaper work did a great deal of good for me in working off the purple flurry of my early writing. Every young writer has to work off the ‘fine writing’ stage. It was a painful period in which I overcame my florid, exaggerated, foamy-at-the-mouth, adjective-spree period ... I believe every young writer must write whole books of extravagant language to get it out.” —Willa Cather, from an interview, 1915
“Every dawning talent has to go through a phase of imitation and subjection to influences, and the great object of the young writer should be not to fear those influences, but to seek only the greatest, and to assimilate them so they become [her] stock-in-trade.” — Edith Wharton, from a letter, 1918
“I didn’t have any particular gift in my twenties. I didn’t have any exceptional qualities ... The only reason I finally was able to say exactly what I felt was because, like a pianist practicing, I wrote every day. There was no more than that. There was no studying of writing, there was no literary discipline, there was only the reading and receiving of experience.” —Anais Nïn, from an essay, 1975
I have a theory that most of us have at least a sense of what our literary voice should be, but the missing piece is the courage to use it. Raised to be good girls, many of us are reluctant to sound too strong, too assertive, too unconventional, or too much like the self we know is in there somewhere, clamoring to come out. The best remedy for timid whispering or overwrought blathering, it seems, is simply to do a great deal of very regular writing, peeling back the layers and revealing the true writer’s voice within. As for me, I still like to sit in corners in restaurants and at parties, but on the page—not so much any more.
Visit The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life at http://www.literaryladiesguide.com