by VALERIE DUFF
As a young writer, I often felt I needed to write about something beyond myself — something accessible only to writers older, more intelligent, more talented than I was. This pressure I put on myself often resulted in stagnant, dreadful writing, full of clichés and in a voice that sounded wooden. Then, in my early twenties, I attended a writing workshop with a Cambridge poet who gave the class a sheaf of poems and essays on poetry. The handbook she’d compiled for us began with a quotation (author unknown):
“Yesterday, I told my girls, I told them, if somebody interesting talks to you, you say a few things, too. You might as well breathe at the same time and let the words out in the air. Don’t ask questions, I told them. Give things away. Give yourself away.”
It was astonishingly simple advice, both fearless and easy.
This became the invaluable mantra I repeated when I sat down to do my own writing. It’s a mantra that works no matter what writing project is in front of you.
It’s easy to forget that once upon a time our stories were spoken, and that writing carries with it an authentic voice. Our work as writers is not to come up with a story unlike any that has come before — a constraint no one needs to submit to. Instead, our work is to invest experiences that may be familiar to others with details and observations that are distinctly ours. It’s the piecing together of specifics by a perceptive individual, always reacting to people, places, predicaments — the sound of a voice, the feel of a particular location, the awareness of a misstep. This is what makes a fully realized personal essay so much more compelling than writing that shows off its education or tries to be something it’s not.
Every writer gets to say a few things, too. In the best writing, the self-conscious self falls away. You always have permission to sound like yourself.
Still, when I work with students and I say something is confusing, or I ask them for particulars, I hear them say, “I thought I was supposed to sound a certain way” (read: dry, abstract), or “I wanted to focus on ideas.” I hear that fundamental misunderstanding about this endeavor that I once carried. This is when I repeat the mantra. You can see the relief on their faces; revising suddenly turns from work into play. In a few minutes of simple, actual conversation, we unearth the specifics, which we catch and write down. What I see in the revision is real change — suddenly there is a voice, a tactile thing, a motive, or a music that I can inhabit as I read. We all have experiences, and we’re all moving toward that alliance with another. Did you see what I saw? Yes! Or: No — describe it for me? Oh, yes, and that reminds me of… Writing becomes a win-win enterprise; it becomes a completed transaction. When you give yourself away on the page, your reader experiences each moment with you.
Another quote from that poet’s handbook along the same lines: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” Robert Frost. You can’t fake it. What you have available to express continues to grow as you explore it, and voice it. And when you’re ready, you can offer it to readers, who, encountering the specific details of your experience, will suddenly feel they know you as well as they know themselves.