a journal of observations, obsessions and inspirations

musings on the artist's life

Posted in: Writing

Finding my writer’s voice

montage of forms of writing, typewriter, script, hieroglyphics

Since the fourth grade, I’d been pushed, prodded, scolded and guided 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 in an office, whether I was working for attorneys, in marketing and corporations selling products.

Sure, I could do it. But none of it felt like me. Where was my 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 voice in literature… is an author’s individual writing style.” – literarydevices.net/voice

A few years later, finally serious about finishing my AA degree in English, I was surprised/not surprised to get the results of testing out of basic English: I did not pass. I didn’t like any of the questions, or more particularly, any of the answer choices. There was no “best answer” – they were all wrong in some way. And not factually wrong, but stylistically wrong. The result? A bit embarrassing, after all these years and course papers and jobs that involved writing. If I wanted to graduate, I would have to take English 101.

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 our 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 we’d turn in a revision along 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. Or for a thread 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 played with style. Experimented with voice. Tested the limits and found out what was too far and what felt just right. Just write. I’ve taken classes from some terrific teachers, a lot of classes. But Peter helped me 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 or whatever.

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 posts are those response papers. My learning exercises, in tangible form, imperfectly recording my journey towards voice.