July 8, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Lisa Levy
For the past 20 years or so I was a critic—a critic with some ambition, but no desire to reveal myself separately from my thoughts. I started reviewing books as a sideline when I was in an English PhD program and then I discovered I liked my side gig better than my main one. I got more actual readers, as opposed to what I would have publishing academic papers, where nine of your friends-rivals who are also studying Gertrude Stein would read your essay (or pretend to have read it). Plus, I had an abiding interest in criticism, and as I studied the canonical writers most of them had a bent for criticism too: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot. When I was a critic I was incorporeal, a creature concerned only with judging a book (it was usually a book, sometimes two, or sometimes music or a TV show) as objectively as possible. I was an aspiring 21st century secular version of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, an image I studied in grad school which has haunted me ever since: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
So—God thing aside—I reveled in being a critic, in judgment, in writing as if my thoughts were incontrovertible truths. I let some of myself slip in, like my favorite critics did—Susan Sontag, Geoff Dyer, Wayne Koestenbaum—but I guarded the part of myself that could be hurt not if someone did not like my writing but if someone disliked my writing so much that they disliked me. I’ve never asked other writers if they also suffer from this slippage between writer and work, if they feel rejected when their work is ignored or badmouthed, if they can’t help but want to know the writers they admire and to demean the ones they dislike, whether for personal or professional reasons. I was expert at the latter. I kept a list of writers in my head who had gotten assignments I coveted, or who had written something I liked so much I immediately detested the brain that birthed it. The stakes are so low in writing, the plumb assignments so rare, that to indulge in this kind of behavior is pure petulance—but a writer’s ego is a fragile thing.
My struggle with low with self-esteem curtailed my professional ambitions. I didn’t try to submit my work to the best places, and I didn’t really think about why. My insecurity was so ingrained I wondered if I’d ever make it to the next level, the one where the glossy magazines come to you, the one where editors took you to lunch and asked you if you had any ideas, or they emailed urgently to secure you to review the book everyone was buzzing about. Your piece would be on the cover of the magazine, of course, your name in twenty-four-point font.
Now I hope you are not expecting some magical advice about how to escape the most common writer’s traps: low self-esteem, impostor syndrome, extreme bitterness, and death by comparison. The way I did it was simple: I wrote more, and I wrote differently. I burst out of my critical mode, silenced the voices that told me I was too ambitious, too pretentious, and not worthy of critiquing writing because mine was subpar.
For me, the way out of the critical conundrum was to do what comes naturally: to think more about myself, and how I could be more of a presence in my writing. In transforming into the transparent eyeball my graduate school training had stolen the I from me. Seizing the first-person enabled me to make assertions not just as the voice of a publication, or of some free-floating critical entity, I gained confidence. At first I used my new voice sparingly, but as I did it more I started to listen and I liked how it sounded. I started writing personal essays, leaving other writers out of my pieces, and they turned out okay, and then better than okay. I published them, and people responded.
Don’t misunderstand me: I didn’t suddenly land a bushel of personal essay assignments just because I published a few, one of which got a fairly large audience because it was about my migraines and sick people love to read about their own illness. Yet publishing a few was exactly what I needed to feel legitimate, like I didn’t have to lean on the ideas and the voices of other writers. I had learned to redirect my critical voice so it wasn’t dismembering a book—or me—but something in the world I needed to break down, turn over, and discuss with some urgency, like my chronic migraines; my sad and comic dating history; or my love affair with vintage dresses. I worried I would come off as shallow, or pathetic, or deluded. But I didn’t. I wrote personal essays with charisma, with a bit of arrogance, with humor among moments of despair.
In short, I wrote like a human being, like someone who doubts and who believes, who loves and hates, who marches headfirst into the future and who quivers at the idea of the unknown. I wrote like a person terrified of change and eager for experience. I wasn’t just a critic anymore. I was a person, and I wrote like one.
Lisa Levy has been a freelance writer and editor for almost 20 years, focusing on essays, criticism, feminism, and self-fashioning. She has written for many publications, including The New Republic, the LARB, the Believer, the Millions, the Rumpus, TLS, Boulevard, Hazlitt, and Lit Hub, where she is a contributing editor. She is also a contributing editor and columnist at Crime Reads and is working toward a nonfiction MFA at Goucher College. A longtime New Yorker now based in Toronto, she has work forthcoming in Assay, Narratively, the Missouri Review, and Guernica.
March 12, 2020 § 16 Comments
Early in my writing journey—we’re talking 1980s—I took a creative writing class with a famous novelist professor. One day the class workshopped a story I’d written about an adolescent girl with anorexia. Lo and behold, my classmates liked it. One boy was so captivated by a scene of the protagonist puking into her mother’s kitchen sink he asked, “Did you, like, have that experience?” (Spoiler alert: Yep, the story was thinly-veiled fiction.)
Then my famous novelist professor chimed in. He said, “I don’t hear a voice. Do any of you hear a voice?” My classmates shuffled in their seats. We hadn’t had a lesson on the craft of voice, much less the implications of voice for someone who has been conditioned to silence her truth. “You can have all the energy of Tolstoy,” he said, “but if you don’t have a voice? You’re not a writer.”
I aborted my fledgling plan to pursue an MFA in creative writing.
Voice or no voice, after college I continued to write my life as fiction. But now the question Do I have a voice? peppered my notebooks. I read everything I could find on writing and voice. I also studied voice as intrinsic to female conditioning. I learned it’s not uncommon for an adolescent girl to internalize shame as her body develops, and that such shame can silence her voice.
My studies on women and voice led me to Gail Collins-Ranadive’s course Writing Re-creatively: A Spiritual Quest for Women. Gail said, “We will write to tap into what’s already within us, hidden, hibernating, waiting to be reawakened and given voice.”
In Gail’s writing circle, I tapped into something within me that felt larger than me. A voice, I began to understand, derives from the spiritual essence of oneself; you can no sooner not have a voice than not have a soul.
Do any of you hear a voice?
Years passed. By day I worked for a magazine, wrote book reviews, became an educational writer and editor. I continued to write and began to lead women’s writing circles.
One day, browsing a bookstore, I discovered Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others. Pat said, “Those of us who teach—really teach—know that we are simply midwives to that which is already in our students. Our only task is this: to prepare a place, to welcome, to receive, to encourage.”
Yes, oh, yes.
During a writing prompt in Kate Hopper’s course Motherhood & Words, my mother’s red medical book appeared on the page. Uh-oh. There’s a story I swore I’d never write: The time my mother opened her red medical book to human papilloma virus and shamed me in the aftermath of a rape I was not then able to name.
Kate said, “I want to hear more.” Then she said: “When you’re ready to write it.”
Twenty-five years after the famous novelist professor said I don’t hear a voice I got my MFA in creative nonfiction. But guess what? I completed my MFA without writing a single word about my mother’s red medical book. That’s okay: I was not yet ready to write that story. Readiness I have learned is essential to the memoir-writing process: We write our way toward emotional readiness.
Instead, I wrote stories that skirted the red medical book even as, unbeknownst to me, I wrote my way toward it.
I wrote my way toward my voice.
I don’t hear a voice. Do any of you hear a voice?
I wish I’d said something back then on my behalf, but I was years from knowing that a voice, like a self, can retreat into hiding. It’s taken me time and experience as a writer and teacher to understand that, yes, everyone has a voice, and part of a writing teacher’s role is to create a safe space for that voice to emerge. “Finding our voice has to do with finding our safety,” Julia Cameron says.
Safety, it turns out, induces readiness.
Every turn in my writing journey readied me to write the story I once swore I’d never write. I’m now writing my memoir Searching for Salt. At the heart of this story? My mother’s red medical book.
The girl with anorexia? Yeah, her, too.
Patricia Hampl says (I’m paraphrasing) we write in service of the story that wants to be told, which may or may not be the story we want to tell.
Know this: A voice for any given story emerges from the subject at the heart of that story. If shame shrouds a story’s subject so, too, its voice may hover beneath shame. A memoirist whose subject has been silenced by shame must write past shame to the voice at the heart of her story.
What’s your red-medical-book story?
I want to hear it. When you’re ready.
Marilyn Bousquin is the founder of Writing Women’s Lives™ Academy, where she teaches women who are done with silence how to claim their voice and write their memoir stories with confidence, craft, and consciousness. Her own memoir stories appear in River Teeth, Under the Gum Tree, Superstition Review, Pithead Chapel, The Rumpus and elsewhere. Follow her on Facebook.
September 20, 2016 § 12 Comments
A guest post from Kelly Kautz:
Every copywriter has an unfinished manuscript tucked in a desk drawer, goes an old advertising cliche. The manuscript represents an identity crisis, a fraught relationship between commerce and art.
“You know the popular conception,” a 1960 New York Herald Tribune article summarized. “He’s writing about Frabjous Krispies for his pocketbook but here are tears in his beard.”
I, too, am a copywriter with a manuscript. And until a few months ago, I too had an identity crisis. But mine wasn’t a struggle between art and commerce. I just couldn’t find my voice.
The Story I Almost Couldn’t Tell
My book is rooted in family history: my great-grandmother might have belonged to a Satanic cult. I’d overheard bits and pieces of the story throughout childhood: She’d always been a bitter woman; then she fell in with a strange crowd. People began disappearing. And the dirt floor of her cellar, well, that was a perfect place to hide bodies.
No one had substantiated the family rumors. After I became a mother, I decided to try, and write a book about my investigation. I interviewed family members, and jotted down drafts. I spent my lunch hours at the ad agency searching digitized newspaper archives for clues. I envisioned the finished book to be a literary look at family secrets. But I couldn’t untangle the narrative threads: The fallibility of memory. The true crime angle. Genealogy. Satan.
How could I capitalize on the occult angle without sensationalizing it? Was I writing a history book, a memoir or—Satan forbid—a piece of pulp?
I struggled with these questions for nearly a year. I studied the Hero’s Journey and mapped out each chapter. This tightened up the book’s story arc, but left me no closer to understanding its nuances. Discouraged, I began spending my down time gossiping with coworkers and stalking the employee breakroom for snacks.
That’s how I found my solution. I’d wandered into the breakroom for a third cup of coffee one afternoon when I overheard a coworker explaining brand pyramids to an intern.
“All great brands are built upon something universal,” he said. “That’s what makes them relatable. The trick is to capture something universal and remain true to the things that make the brand unique. Those unique parts sit at the top. They’re what everyone sees. But that universal part provides the foundation.”
Universal yet unique, I thought. Huh.
That evening I sat down and listed my book’s narrative threads. Then I began organizing them into a pyramid of my own, from the most universal to the most unique. How did brain science fit in? Where did genealogy go? I crossed out threads and added new ones. Eventually a structure started to form.
Family was the foundation of my story; the most universal of all the angles. Next came motherhood, which had sparked my investigation—also universal, though a little more focused. Mental illness was a third theme—not quite universal, though all-too common. I’ve struggled with OCD my entire life, and suspected this or some other mental illness played a role in my great-grandmother’s behavior.
And finally, that weird little detail about the occult. The part that everyone noticed, and everyone remembered.
Calling this a brand pyramid isn’t quite accurate. It’s just an organized list of narrative themes. But once I’d created it, writing my book became easier. Talking about it seemed more natural. I felt like I’d finally found my voice.
Finding Your Own Voice
I’ve always been interested in a long list of strange and disparate things. Perhaps that’s why I like advertising: I get paid to write about candy bars and extrusion machines, all in the same afternoon.
Rather than confining me to a narrow set of topics, this pyramid has empowered me. I no longer feel obligated to insert an occult angle into every blog post I write. I’ve opened up about my personal experiences with motherhood and mental illness, because I finally understand their relevance.
Most importantly, I get excited when I look at my brand pyramid, because I’m reminded of what drew me to this story in the first place. I notice connections between themes that I hadn’t seen before. But it took me a long time to get to this point. I spent many afternoons frowning at my computer, with too much to say and no way to say it.
If you find that it’s taking you a long time to find your voice, too, don’t panic. Explore everything that feels relevant, and a few things that don’t. Keep evaluating and re-evaluating which angles feel right, and which topics draw your interest. Ask yourself: which parts of my story are universal, and which are specific to me alone?
Your direction might take the form of pyramid like mine, or a mission statement, or a mind map. Maybe it will look like something else altogether. In the end, the form doesn’t matter; only that it leads you down the path to your best work. Even if your best work turns out to be about Frabjous Krispies.
July 28, 2014 § 6 Comments
I started listening to podcasts because I was commuting from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Waynesville, Ohio every weekend. Five hours each way, and Beyoncé’s a boss but there’s only so many times in a row I can belt out Single Ladies before my passengers start to complain (twice). Enter This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and the
skull-pounding nightmare delightful folksiness of Prairie Home Companion.
As I’ve become a radio storyteller and producer, I’ve started listening to podcasts more carefully. Radio producers thrive on making a signature sound for their own shows, a unique style that’s the equivalent of “voice” in written work. If you’re looking for inspirational approaches to structure, viewpoint and story, check out these listens. The links below take you right to the episodes, or click on the podcast title to get to their homepage, where you can subscribe in the audio service of your choice.
If you’re writing hybrid or braided essays:
Radiolab mixes anecdote, conjecture, expert testimony, historical fact and contemporary experiments to tell the stories behind science. Their narrative style is a great example of mixed genres coming together to tell a single story.
Episodes to start with: Rodney vs Death, Colors, and Are You Sure? (This one is a three-story episode. Be aware that the third story–which is one of the most incredible stories I’ve ever heard–is not kid- or work-safe)
If you’re having trouble plotting, or want to amp up your humor:
Snap Judgment has a young, quirky feel, and weaves sound design into storytelling that’s often live. They’re a great listen for sequential stories with surprising endings. If you’re trying to nail down an “…and I learned that…” ending without sounding trite, Snap’s stories can help. If you’re trying to up your humor, they’re often very funny, too.
If you can’t figure out whether an incident is a story, or are struggling with finding dramatic movement in a reflective essay:
Third Coast International Audio Festival has its own podcast series, but something that’s served me well is the recordings of workshops and panels at their biannual convention. In particular, check out the “Pitch Perfect” and “Pitch Panel” sessions. After listening to several in a row, I was able to start distinguishing what was a story and what was a vignette or an observation even before the panel responded to the pitcher.
Start with: Pitch Perfect Session 2 from the 2012 Conference
If you’re approaching a difficult topic:
Love+Radio producer Nik Van der Kolk is a master of revealing a nonfiction story like a mystery. His use of low-fi sound and recordings that would be considered “flawed” by other shows is fascinating. Listen to the way information is slowly revealed to suck the listener right in before they shy away from the topic.
One to start with: Jack and Ellen (Most of Love+Radio is not kid- or work-safe. Again, incredible story, put in your earbuds or have grown-up passengers)
Happy listening–and if you’ve got a favorite podcast or episode, post a link in the comments–I’m always on the lookout for a good listen!