Since the fourth grade, I’d been pushed and prodded and scolded to a particular style of writing. Something formal. Suitable for school. In dozens of English, history, literature courses, I learned how to write ‘appropriately’ for class papers. Later on, I’d learn how to write appropriately, but very differently, in an office, whether I was working for attorneys, for corporations selling products and in marketing.
Could I do it? Sure. But none of it ever felt like me. Where was my writer’s voice?
“A voice in literature… is an author’s individual writing style.” – literarydevices.net/voice
I rebelled by writing a book, though it featured photography more than writing. But I learned more about myself through writing that book than I did in shooting the images.
A few years later, finally serious, deciding to finish my AA degree in English, I was surprised/not surprised to get the results of a standardized test the college made me take. This one was to test out of basic English: I did not pass. I didn’t like any of the questions, or more accurately, any of the answer choices. There was no “best answer.” All were wrong in some way. I don’t necessarily mean factually wrong, but stylistically wrong. I remember thinking how offended I was by the choices. So I guessed.
The result? A bit embarrassing, after all those years and course papers and jobs that involved writing. If I wanted to graduate, I would have to take English 101.
No other way around it, I signed up for Comp & Lit. And in one of those simple twists of fate, found myself in Peter Jacoby’s class at San Diego Mesa College. This, it turned out, was a good thing.
Professor Jacoby assigned works of literature – plays, stories, poems and short novels – but instead of analyzing the work or, worse, writing a book report, we were asked to write a response paper each week. He said the response should touch on some of the composition elements in the assigned reading, perhaps referred to the class discussions and lecture. He then read, graded and got comments back to us the following week and a week later, we’d turn in a revision together with the next assignment.
That first week, I wrote in “school style” and was taken aback with his comments. “Loosen it up,” he wrote in the margin. And next to an idea that I figured was too far out there: “This part is great – why don’t you expand on it?” Well, okay! So I tapped into me instead of hiding and I got praise. Buckets of it. The next semester, I wanted to continue working with him so I signed up for his advanced Comp & Lit course as an elective.
“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.” – Neil Gaiman
Through all the assignments and in my subsequent books, I’ve played with style. Experimented with voice. Tested the limits and found out what went too far and what felt just right. Just write. I’ve taken classes from some terrific teachers, a lot of classes. But Peter is the one who gave me the confidence to find my true voice as a writer.
I find the limits by testing, by going too far and I can turn up the volume or dial it back, as needed. But I stopped being afraid I wouldn’t please ‘The Authority Figure’ (baggage from my childhood) or whatever, and grabbed my writer’s voice.
Everyone needs mentors, creative people more than others, maybe. I’ve run into a few along the way, giving me support and encouragement in different ways to match where I was at the time. Peter Jacoby unlocked a door, then handed me the key and let me go. “Everyone deserves the chance to fly,” don’t they?
The following seven posts are those response papers, written in 2008 and 2009. My learning, in tangible form, imperfectly recording my journey towards voice. Read the first one.