Your questions answered

How to Write Faster and Find Your Voice

You need to figure out if you’re a poet or a ghost

Hamlet, Marcellus, Horatio and the Ghost, by Robert Thew, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Open Access collection online.

A two part question from a reader this week:

Q : I’ve really wanted to ask you: how do you get better at writing faster? How do you write faster?

A: Online chat rooms made me a fast typist. But I don’t know any single way to write faster, though for many of us it involves removing impediments to thought and the expression of thoughts. Sometimes that is about setting and enforcing boundaries — I am currently trying to imitate my late mentor, Kit Reed, who wrote for three hours every morning, and would not let anyone interrupt her.

Meals are probably the biggest challenge for me. I love elaborate breakfasts. And so anytime I have gone to a writers colony where meals are provided, for example, my productivity has escalated dramatically. This is because cooking for yourself takes time, cleaning it up takes time, and shopping for the food also takes time. I arrived with a novel that was 90 or so pages long, written over several years, and left with 110 more pages written over five weeks. A very kind chef and staff cooked three meals a day for the colonists.

Other impediments include some hidden in plain sight, like writing on a computer. I remember a very long time ago learning that most of the people who design software work on the very simplest text writing programs because the word processing programs they design for the rest of us to use are gaudy, interrupting, overstuffed with useless additions. Autocorrect, for example, would destroy coding. It is also an assault on style. Fighting with it in a sentence while you are putting the sentence together can throw you off, for example.

I have also found my devices to have become increasingly pugnacious over the years, less and less able to help me do my work, and more often the reason the work is not done. But I can still sit down with a pen and paper and draft a novel that way. That said, I have found writing on my phone or even dictating into my phone when I have a busy, interruption prone academic term to be a way to work I only have a few minutes between meetings and classes. Dictation especially while commuting is helpful.

Sometimes the hard or slow part is due to your having chosen a subject that you don’t know anything about and you need to do research. Sometimes it is an idea that is your unconscious performance of allegiance to a status quo that you don’t really feel connected to, and you need to let the idea go and reclaim your connection to your self and your own ideas. And sometimes it is related to trauma. It’s hard to know why we might be writing slow. Almost as hard as the writing, maybe even harder. That leads me to Question 2.

Q: How do you write something in your “own voice”? I’ve tried different “voices” throughout my life. In high school, I had my Sylvia Plath phase. I’ve had my Jhumpa Lahiri phase. I’ve tried Jenny Zhang and some other writers I admire. I oscillate between sentimental and then try to be snarky.

This morning I woke up to this post from Alexis Pauline, commemorating the life of the late radical black queer poet Essex Hemphill with a meditation: “I love myself enough to be who I am.” So today is a good day for this question.

My husband, who trained as an actor at Circle in the Square in New York, once told me a story about his voice training that I never have forgotten because of the implications of it. The actors there were being trained to drop certain learned mannerisms that they’d adopted over the years in relationship to learned social ideas — the need to speak in a pleasing, non-threatening, docile or friendly voice, which often means taking on a timbre, a pitch, a limit to the vocabulary. Actors need to be able to inhabit characters fully, and part of that means letting go of the roles they took up in this life often without knowing or at least acknowledging that they had done so, something we all do. This kind of conditioning is widespread. Once he told me this, I started hearing this in others, and in myself.

I worked customer service jobs, for example, for much of my life, and I am also a good mimic with accents, when learning languages. I am an older brother and learned what I call “teacher command voice” also, a way of bringing order to a room without raising my voice — or a way of raising my voice slightly. It is very easy for me to shapeshift with my voice based on what I think others want from me or what I want from others, and I thought this was interchangeable with an idea of myself and my voice. But easily the warning with shapeshifting is that it is easy to lose track of yourself amid those transformations. If you create an identity out of swiftly pleasing others and focusing on their desires more than your own, and you take a vicarious pleasure in fulfilling these desires, and you experience their gratitude as validation, even derive self-esteem from this role, it is easy to imagine that this is who you are, because who you are is never the subject of your thoughts. And as it is dangerous to that identity to consider your own desires alongside of or instead of those of others, as it may impede your ability to satisfy these people to whom you feel indispensable, you might treat even the idea of investigating your desires as an existential threat, rather than a valid personal, much less aesthetic, exercise.

Writing and acting are very closely related, as you have perhaps figured out by now. The significance of a writer’s voice has been mythologized so much now that even people who don’t know very much about writing will imagine they cannot begin writing something until they find their voice. But in just about every case I can think of, one is already in possession of the voice, one is just not in the habit of listening to that voice, or for it, much less letting it speak.

I think of a writer’s voice on the page as being like a singer’s voice — interrelated, or at least occupying the same space, but doing very different things with the space. A writer’s voice is always created in relationship to the persona adopted for the piece of writing. Some writers are stylists, and each sentence insists on the attention of the reader for not just content but also style; some writers vanish into their characters, and each sentence is never going to ask you to do more than read it with the attention on the performance of the voice. And so I think of these directions as roles of a kind — what I call the Poet or the Ghost. Anne Carson, for example, has an arresting style that is utterly unlike that of others, across different kinds of writing. We go to her for that. Kazuo Ishiguro, on the other hand, is different novel to novel. Those of us who love these writers wouldn’t have them do their work any other way.

I cannot tell you how to find your voice exactly, but I can recommend a few practices. Write a journal that is just for you. Read what you love to read. Read what you write aloud. Record that reading and listen to it and note your reactions to your own recorded voice. Practice voicing your opinions. Commit to spending time by yourself, when you just do whatever you want to do, and then time with others, where you try the same. Sing, also, alone or with others. Note the difference between how you might blend your voice in a song, matching tone, and how you sound when you sing by yourself. Like anything else, it is a practice of self-observation. And attend to the use of cliché, as well as the House Style of the Internet, as practice on Twitter especially, where Twitter memes especially can feel like everyone auditioning with the same material but for years and years. How many ways can we do the No one joke? I guess we’ll see.

And rather than imitating these writers’ styles, you could try imitating their practices. Plath wrote intensely in her journals, and we can see they were the forge for her voice as a poet and as a fiction writer. Lahiri has left behind English for Italian, finding her voice in translation. Zhang is a writer who also kept diaries, following what she has called the urge to chronicle, and who found Twitter (before leaving it), jokes and talking back to be important for her work.

A brief announcement: I’m teaching a course in Autobiographical Fiction and the uses of autobiography in fiction at the Shipman Agency online. Scholarships are available and the class will be ASL interpreted.

If this is your first time reading me, here, some previous writing posts:

Let Me Finish, Don’t Quit Writing When The World Is On Fire, How to Face Writers’ Block, Am I Ready For The MFA, How to Access Emotional States Different From The One You’re In.

If you enjoyed this and want updates about future posts, you can follow me here.

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.

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