As part of Erin McCahan's blog tour for her new book I Now Pronounce You Someone Else, I asked her to write a guest post about discovering/developing her author's voice. I am pleased to share her guest post with you!
In Honors College Comp, eleventh grade – notice how I threw in Honors – the teacher began the year by telling us we would be developing our voices as writers. We’d be reading novels, studying essayists, critiquing their works and keeping journals, and great. Okay, great.
My voice. I kept getting papers back with the comment, “I’d like to hear more of your voice,” written in red at the top. Now, let me say that more of my voice was one of the last things this particular teacher, Wanda Shortbottom – that’s not really her name – wanted to hear. She was the very first teacher of mine about whom I can honestly say this: She and I thoroughly disliked each other. And this was rare for me. I was so awfully shy and pathologically obedient that most teachers and I got along beautifully. I liked my teachers. I assumed they liked me, but in addition to being shy and obedient, I didn’t exactly have the healthiest self-esteem, so it was almost too much to consider being liked by a teacher, but I knew, at least, they didn’t hate me.
Until Honors College Comp.
She was only subtly unkind to me, and I was only withdrawn and terrified in her class. And it was first period, so, yeah, that was a fun way to start the day.
So back to my voice. We wrote in our journals two or three times a week and were required to turn in – excuse me?! – one entry a week.
Turn in a journal?! A deeply personal, private recording of my own not so shy or terribly obedient thoughts and observations? And I’m supposed to turn this in to a woman I dislike in direct proportion to her dislike of me?!
“I’d like to hear more of your voice,” she wrote, and if I’d have been braver, I’d have written, “No, you wouldn’t.”
Instead I wrote a journal about seeing my college-freshman brother in his first theatrical role at Miami University. And that’s another story. My parents and I dragged ourselves three hours south in miserable weather to watch yet one more amateur production – poor Will Shakespeare – of Romeo and Juliet in which my brother was Lute Player Number One.
Lute Player Number One.
He was in three scenes, had no lines but did step forward during one party scene to play a handful of lively chords, recorded and played over-loud through the sound system, before stepping back among Lute Player Numbers Two through Five. Oh, and all the way home my mother gushed about how “watchable” he was. Now, I am a typical little sister who, even at my current age, idolizes her older brother and believes he can do no wrong. But I would have been satisfied with a still photo of him as Lute Player Number One because – let’s face it – it was Romeo and Juliet, not Romeo, Juliet and Their Nifty Lute-Playing Sidekick, Paco.
So I wrote a journal entry about this. Not quite like this but, in any case, about this event, and I got it back with, “I’d like to hear more of your voice.” And to be honest, I didn’t understand what the woman wanted.
“I am writing in my voice,” I wanted to write back. “I’m certainly not writing in any other voices. This is it. This is my voice.”
And it was at the time. The fact that I didn’t have much of a voice or an interesting voice or a spiky voice WAS my voice. What I wrote perfectly reflected how I existed in the world. I was observant, yes. But I was also shy, withdrawn, unhappy. I was occasionally afraid and usually worried. I was polite. I followed rules. My spelling and punctuation were flawless. And I was forever hoping to be something more than what I was or what I thought I was at the time, which just wasn’t much.
And that’s how I wrote.
“I’d like to hear more of your voice.”
Yeah, I’d like to think I have a voice worth using.
So, here’s what happened in Honors College Comp: Nothing.
I got an A or a B. I can’t remember.
But here’s what happened during the college years: I started speaking up. And in speaking up, I became less shy. And in becoming less shy, I started speaking up more. And in speaking up more . . . . You see how it goes.
On my own, away from people whose expectations were that I’d never really have much worth saying, in the company of brilliant professors and wonderful friends, I found I had quite a lot of things to say . . . and likely always did. But an unkind teacher writing on a journal entry, “I’d like to hear more of your voice,” is hardly the same thing as a religion professor writing on papers, “This is interesting, Erin. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts in class.” Or a creative writing professor writing, “Good observation. Come by my office later and let’s talk about it.” Or even hearing a friend laugh at something I said.
So – the point: My writer’s voice and my interior voice are the same thing. This is how I talk, complete with pauses where commas would be when I deliver my thoughts live and in person. My interior voice reflects my interior self, and that self once sat scared and unhappy in Wanda Shortbottom’s class but today is doing a blog tour for her debut novel. And in between once and now . . . that’s where all the experience for future novels come from.