Friday, March 16, 2012

Shining a Light on Monsters

OOPS! I skipped a chapter in our discussion of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird last time. Here it is! Jump in whether you've read the chapter or not. Also, is there a writing book you would like to discuss together here? We're almost to the end of Lamott's book.

Lamott's chapter, "Finding Your Voice," opens rather predictably but wisely about how new writers tend to emulate their favorite authors:

It is natural to take on someone else's style, that it's a prop that you use for a while until you have to give it back. And it just might take you to the thing that is not on loan, the thing that is real and true: your own voice.--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Early in my writing career, I read everything by Elizabeth Berg. I LOVED her voice, the truth of it, how I felt connected to her characters, with her. I loved her writing so much I attended a writers conference where she was a speaker, hoping to meet her. The poor woman was at the tail end of a book tour. She looked like she'd slept in motel rooms lit by strobe lights for weeks. The good thing for me? She was weak and easy to stalk. I wrangled a picture with her, a few words that I don't remember, but it didn't help me sound just like her.

As much as I wanted to write in her voice, I wasn't Elizabeth Berg. I hadn't lived her life, wrestled her monsters, eaten her breakfast, argued with her husband over moldy towels. My voice is my own, a product of all that is dull and magnificent about me. It's what I fantacize about, tremble over, do in dark rooms with the shades drawn. Oh my! My voice is also what swells my heart to love, rejoice, and worship. There's no getting around it, I can only write from my own core.

This, according to Lamott, means getting in touch with our monsters.


Oh yeah.

When people shine a little light on their monster, we find out how similar most of our monsters are. The secrecy, the obfuscation, the fact that these monsters can only be hinted at, gives us the sense that they must be very bad indeed. But when pople let their monsters out for a little onstage interview, it turns out that we've all done or thought the same things, that this is our lot, our condition. We don't end up with a brand on our forehead. Instead, we compare notes.

I worried about myself even as a child. We had exposed aggragate stairs to the second floor that sort of floated. No risers. Somehow, I had gotten into my head that if I stepped on the third step from the top, a monster would reach between the steps, grab my leg, and pull me into the 5th Dimension where unspeakable torments awaited children. My maturing brain knew this couldn't be true, but the self-doubting part of my brain kept up this practice for an embarrassingly long time.

No one ever knew.

Until, in an unguarded moment, as an adult, I told someone I hardly knew. As it turned out, she had rituals that kept her safe from monsters in the bathroom--touch the hot water knob, the cold, and tap the faucet three times. No monsters in the bathroom! And so, as Lamott suggests, my new friend and I compared notes. And that's what our readers want to do, compare notes. They don't want to brand us, banish us, or beach us (in case you're a whale). They share our need to know we're not as weird or damaged as we thought. We're not alone.

Recently, the gifted and gorgeous Katy Popa suggested a book to me: The 90 Day Novel by Alan Watt. The author took me by the hand to lead me through the process of structuring and plotting my work in progress through daily writing exercises. Some of the writing prompts took me aback. He made me write about my biggest disappointments, tell things that no one knows about me, and what the source of my greatest shame happens to be. I've filled five notebooks with entries for myself and my characters.

Somewhere in the process, I thought to myself, "Wow, my character's voice is changing. She's real." I'm not sure how my subconcious accomplished this (Bonnie!), but shining a light on my monster has deepened my voice, made it more unique and infused it with truth. It's more me.

Lamott summarizes that telling the truth in our own voices is our nature. "Truth seems to want expression." I'm not sure it's our nature to tell the truth, but I do agree that truth wants expression.

Fortunately, not all truth is a cold, cold lake we have to plunge headlong into. Perhaps your truth is that there is so much more to life than what can be seen. Life is mysterious, wondrous, and its Creator is good. Lamott includes a quote toward the end of the chapter that took my breath away. Stephen Mitchell wrote about Job, saying this:

The physical body is acknowledged as dust, the personal drama is delusion. It is as if the world we perceive through our senses, that whole gorgeous and terrible pageant, were the breath-thin surface of a bubble, and everything else, inside and outside, is pure radiance. Both suffering and joy come then like a brief reflection, and death like a pin.

Let me dare to summarize this seemingly disjointed discussion on voice: While we are in the toddler stage of our writing, we will emulate--or try to emulate--our favorite authors. It's possible this sort of play will lead us to our true voice. But it usually doesn't. What does strengthen and develop our grown-up voice is courage--to face our monsters and to "expose the unexposed." All this work will give us a truer voice, and truth will connect us with our readers like nothing else.

There was Interview With a Vampire. How about Interview with [fill in your name here]'s Monster? If you dare, interview your monster and see how the experience influences your voice. Be sure to report back! Are you buying this? Is it necessary to face your monsters to develop a strong, unique voice? Have you laid a book down because the voice wasn't true? And what about this kinship with truth? Have you experienced that with an author? Here's one sentence from this chapter that could start a great conversation: "Write as if your parents are dead." Let's not waste it!


Megan Sayer said...

Ah Patti, this is why I love Novel Matters. You always tell it exactly like it is!
Thank you.

Megan Sayer said...

Oh, and I think stairs like those did it for everyone : )

Footprints From the Bible by Cynthia Davis said...

Love your statement "My voice is my own, a product of all that is dull and magnificent about me." And you (and Lamott) are right about the monsters being what really gives us depth of character that we can use in our own writing.
I think I may just interview a couple of my own monsters...

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Patti! I'm so glad you remembered this chapter! So important! I've tried to write like so many others...Steinbeck (still would LOVE to write like him), Salinger, Shakespeare (that was a BIG flop)...But I am so grateful to be exploring my own voice. It is far more fulfilling to write as Susie. :)

Megan Sayer said...

Sorry, I'm back. Not good at leaving questions unanswered, especially ones that are so pertinent to where I'm at.
Anyway, here's a bit of reality for you:
I've been working on my WIP for a long while now, this is draft 4, and it's been a struggle because even though I've been really passionate about the story the voice has been eluding me. I have a vague memory of praying about this a few months ago and asking God to help me with it, which should probably be listed among the stupidest prayers you can pray (up there with "God, humble me!") because...what happened? The monsters all came out of the closet.
So thanks for this. The result was pretty striking: turns out the only way I knew how to process my monsters was to write, and pretty quickly I discovered the voice for my book, and the whole thing has flowed in a way that it hasn't done at all before.
Good? Yeah. Painful? You bet. Do I wish I'd read this blog post a few months ago? Ummm...yes, but I probably wouldn't have associated it. Sometimes, apparently, you just have to go through these things. I'll be ready for it next time.
So...yes, I agree wholeheartedly. I feel like I've written stuff that connects with the reader in a way that the earlier drafts sadly lacked, and for that I'm incredibly grateful.

Marian said...

This rings true. And, I think the monsters have an endearing side once you see them in the light.

Marti Pieper said...


And yes.

And oh, yes.

My monsters were space creatures. They existed only at night. Imaginary? Yes. But they spawned fear that was real.

I've heard Nancy Rue speak of the huge notebooks she creates for her work, interviewing characters and more. My nonfiction voice has become more distinctive with time (and monster-taming). I can only pray some of that carries over to fiction. Otherwise, well, who you gonna call?

MonsterBusters! (aka Novel Matters) Thanks, Patti. Such fun.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Your comment about stalking Elizabeth Berg made me laugh out loud. :-) And the rest made me think. As always, such a beautifully written post.