Back when I was writing Divine Intention I struggled to find my writing voice. I changed genres and therefore audiences and suddenly felt like I’d never written a line in my life. The editor who acquired my work left the publishing house and I found myself in a position where I was working without any guidance. Most writers will tell you of their neurotic love/hate relationship with their editor. I’ll testify that six months without an editor’s feedback is like being Cool Hand Luke being sentenced to “spend the night in the box.” Solitary confinement is not a writer’s friend.
I compensated for the lack of guidance by committing myself to read Blue Like Jazz and Traveling Mercies over and over until I turned in my manuscript. Those familiar with Donald Miller and Anne Lamott know write like flyweight boxers, nimble and agile and light on their feet. A good boxer makes it look easy, that is, until you get off your couch and engage in life-endangering combat while bouncing on the balls of your feet the whole time. It’s only then you realise the fighter is either some sort of wizard or they’ve invested their entire life to the craft.
Attempting to imitate Don and Anne evokes the same emotions.
Don’t get me wrong. New writers develop their own voice by trying others’ on. This is why any jazz or blues player worth her salt immerses herself in the standards. But my topic is jealousy, not learning how to write. I’m not proud of it, but somewhere within those six months I found myself coveting their voice, frustrated that I couldn’t duplicate it. Here’s the revelation that stopped me from being jealous:
A writer’s voice is not just built by technique, but by deep suffering.
Robert Bly said that “Where a man’s wound is, that is where his genius will be.” I will never him for a drum circle in the woods, but I agree with him on this point.
I read Miller’s Fiction Father and discovered that his humor and affinity for the marginalized where the forged on the experience of having his father abandon the family when he was young. In Traveling Mercies, Lamott writes about her battles with alcoholism and eating disorders. She pulls back the curtain on her upbringing and it’s impossible not to see how her wounds built her voice (or maybe its a matter of building your voice out of your wounds, or both).
I could go on.
Susan Isaacs had to grow up the child of an alcoholic to find her snarky voice and write Angry Conversations with God.
Sarah Thebarge had to nearly die of breast cancer and then some to find her voice in Invisible Girls.
Mike Staavlund had to lose his son to find his voice in A Force of Will.
I could be wrong, but I believe the recipe for a writer’s voice is one part craft and four parts suffering. So whenever I read a passage in a book that causes me to covet the author’s talent I remind myself that he or she paid a terrible to find it.