The Courage to Speak

The Binders of Women Writers group and the flurry of #binders activity on Twitter has made me think in the past couple of days about my own writing, or lack thereof.

Who’s Out There?

I taught literature and composition at the University of Houston in the mid-90s; I was a teaching assistant in the MFA program. My completed master’s thesis consisted of seven short stories, only two of which were written during my tenure at the Houston creative writing program. The other five were composed during my undergrad years.

I did make some revisions.

After I left school I worked as a production editor and editor for the technical publishers O’Reilly Media, Inc., and the Pragmatic Bookshelf. I also did some development editing for Pearson.

Mad skills.

I did not win this award; I just got to hold it.

When working with authors, I often revisited one of my favorite topics from my time teaching composition: audience.

Considering audience is an important element for recognizing an argument or thesis, and in evaluating or editing a piece of writing. It’s crucial to ask, how does the writer say what she says? What techniques or style does she use? What choices does she make?

These questions are also paramount in composing an essay or a chapter: who are you speaking to and how do you hope to reach them, enlighten them, persuade them? What is it that you want—what effect—and how do you get there? You ask yourself how best to achieve your purpose, given the people you’re addressing, like a carpenter measuring a board or a tailor choosing the length, color, and fabric.

If you know who you’re speaking to, you can make decisions about sentence structure and vocabulary and tone and style, and make choices about what stays and what goes. This is the perspective of the teacher and editor: to take the part of the reader.

I advised the students at UH and the authors I later worked with to picture someone: a friend, a colleague, a student—the person who best represented their audience—and write to that person. Tell the story, make the argument, explain the steps directly to that person. They are your audience.

Pretty straightforward, right? I still use this technique.

Just Follow the Soothing Sound of My Voice

But here’s the thing: I have begun to think that I came at the experience of writing backwards. Because of course I meant to be the author, not the editor.

For many years I didn’t pay attention to a concept that I’ve been thinking about lately, that of voice: the original impulse, the reason you’re sitting there with a pen in your hand in the first place. The mindset of sculpting what I had to say to the listener just made more sense to me; it felt comfortable. I suspect other women writers have had a similar experience, though I hate to make generalizations—they’re so vague and flabby. All I have is my own experience, and I don’t really trust myself to speak for anyone else.

Well. I don’t trust myself. Truthfully, I don’t even trust myself to speak for me. It is a battle to put my own words on a page. I think of it as “hating to hear the sound of my own voice.”

That reluctance allowed me to silence myself. I tutored, taught, copyedited, proofread, and edited, but I rarely wrote, and when I did it was an extended teeth-pulling session that I got through with an exhausted sigh of relief.

I feel it now, writing this.

The beauty of writing and reading is the chance to get to know each other, our lives and stories, when otherwise we are limited by our own, brutally narrow experiences and understanding. I don’t mean to be gushy and songs-at-a-campfirey. But we would know nothing about other people if they didn’t tell us.

Well, except for you psychic folks, but you guys already know what I mean.

Why Don’t You Share Your Comment with the Class?

The paralyzing question is, what if what I have to say is not interesting or important? What if it is not worth saying? Every word I put down seems to fail the test. I want to be funny, compassionate, and wise, like a Zen grandma. The truth is I am judgmental and cranky and if I allow myself to write, that is going to come through, unless I create a persona and I would never be able to sustain that illusion.

A few years after leaving college, I visited my undergraduate writing mentor, one of those rare geniuses who are brilliant writers as well as brilliant teachers, and told her that I was having trouble writing. She said, “Do you need someone to give you permission? Fine. I give you permission.” Since then I’ve written very little and published nothing. That was nearly 20 years ago.

Is it a tragedy that the world has not had the benefit of my vision and insight? Don’t answer that; I got this one: nope. I have lived a lucky and privileged life, doing jobs I cared about and took pleasure in. I’m not here to mourn the exigencies of my education, either: I loved every bit of it and I had great teachers and colleagues. I learned how to two-step, drank a vat of Shiner Bock, and saw the Menil. I made some great friends. It’s nobody’s fault that I walked out of there ashamed of the sound of my own voice.

The ax I have to grind, the bone I am here to pick is with my own brain. All I have is my own experience.

If it’s a noble thing to be in the audience, it is also worthwhile to step in front. We as writers have a responsibility to that audience, and none of us is owed one. Every minute the reader spends with our writing is a gift, and it has to be earned. I’m not planning to throw away the questions I ask myself about a piece of writing.

I don’t have much in the way of lessons or conclusions when I write fiction or non-fiction. What I really want to say is, look at that, did you see that thing?

It feels strange sometimes. It’s hard. But that’s the perspective of the writer: take a turn, and speak.