Being Myself Outloud

Some of you have heard the story of how I came to see the importance of voice in writing (though this post is about more than that.)

As I’ve noted before, I am almost painfully dim when it comes to learning how to write or to improving my writing.  Part of this might be because it’s a true “vocation” in the non-religious sense.  It’s not just that I always wanted to be a writer, it’s that my particular set of skills and temperament seem geared towards it, and that I decided I’d be a professional writer very early in life.  I think because of that, I write half by instinct and half by guess, and can miss VAST CHUNKS of craft without noticing.  (I mean, consider I spent most of my young – and otherwise – life reading, and that I didn’t hit upon the concept of “scenes” until I found it in an how to book.  If I had to take the character from the living room to the dining room, instead of saying “he walked to the dining room” and cutting to the next interaction, I dragged him over the floor inch by inch, describing the carpet.  I thought I had to.)  Which is also why I’m an OBSESSIVE student of writing and get advice from the oddest places, from Tennyson poems to song lyrics.

So, I figured out voice mattered (and what it was) when listening to Dave Weber at a panel at either Liberty Con or Constellation.  On the panel was one of my fledgelings, whose name is withheld to protect the neurotic (which most new writers are.  Oh, yeah, most old writers too.)  This particular fledgeling has found a self-torture method that is more effective than cats of nine tails if less efficient.  Fledgeling finds how-to-write advice on line, and then believes it.  All of it.  Because most of the advice on line is not from experienced writers but from newbies, the end results can range from the amusing to the terrifying.  (And why would an extremely talented person do that, you ask?  Well, DUH… er… writer.)

The latest bizarre advice was not to use (I think – hard to remember) the words “as” or “for” because they were – supposedly – the mark of a beginner and would trigger immediate rejection.  (I don’t remember the words exactly, but seriously, they were that common.)  Dave Weber listened to my “child”’s disquisition on this matter, looking increasingly puzzled (I was too, out in the audience) and then grabbed the mike and said “I don’t know if that’s true.  I know I use those words.  But even if it were true, what I’ve found is that if you tell the story convincingly and with confidence in your own voice, all such things will be forgiven.”

See, I’d had people tell me before “voice, you iz doing it wrong” – yes, all my editors are Lolcats.  (No.  I don’t mean it.  It’s a joke.  For heaven’s sake, Toni W., don’t aim there.  Don’t aim there.  I type with those!) – but no one had explained what voice was.  And books on how to find your voice were worse than useless.  One of them advised removing all adjectives and adverbs and all “not strictly needed” description and stage setting.  As far as that goes, it’s not a bad style necessarily, though a bit outdated and reading a little like a stage play.

Weber’s comment made it all clear.  It’s the confidence of the voice and – if I may say so – the appropriateness to the story.  (Something I only found later.)

The best way to put this in perspective is to think of someone telling a joke at a party.  Even if they get the wording a little wrong, and it was three sheep and an Anglican Bishop instead of two goats and a Catholic Monk, it doesn’t matter, provided they do the right expressions, put in the right pacing, and make you SURE they know how they’re telling the story, and even that the story is funny.  (Seriously.  Some people just by the tone of voice and bullying through can make you laugh even if they forget the punchline.)  OTOH is there anything more nerve wracking than the person who stands there and goes “and then he says, are you horny or…  No, wait.  It was he says the hornier you are.  Then… No.”  Or even someone who delivers the absolutely perfect line in an apologetic tone and cringes?  (Unless that’s appropriate.)

Of course it’s a little different to think of this in terms of stage performance when all you have are the words on the page, but I’ve found it DOES help to think of it in the same way I would when telling stories at a party.

I’m a bizarre mix of introvert and extrovert and tests swing one way or the other depending on the time of day and mood I take them in.  But I do trend more towards the introvert.  So being on panels or speaking in public, or telling a joke at a party, make me almost physically ill.  The only way I could meet the demands of being a writer in the age when you have to self-publicize, was to put on a persona and pretend I was big and strong and brave and ENJOYED these interactions (weirdly, I do enjoy them while ‘in persona’) and I’ve found putting on the same mind set while writing works best.

But the weird thing is that, through that persona, I can actually show myself.  Pratchett, in one of his books gives a younger person the advice that she should just be herself as hard as she can (I think that’s in one of the Tiffany Aching’s, but I’m sorry, I’ve only had one – admittedly large – cup of tea and my brain hasn’t come online yet.)  And that’s what I find myself becoming, both on the page and in public.  Through the false front of confidence, I can show the truth of who I am.

And this brings us to the part where this isn’t just for writers.  My blog yesterday was, to an extent, about preference falsification and how it can lead to what amounts to a conspiracy of lies. You fear to disagree with those that are considered the “cool kids” and therefore what others hear is reinforced and leads to a unified – and totally wrong – image of the world setting in.  (In most cases this is relatively harmless.  When it touches on things such as how the genders interact or, say, economics, what we think we know can kill us.  As a species, and often as individuals.)

When I lived in a college area – waggles hand – give or take ten years ago, I used to go for walks and cross paths with the college girls all slim and fashionable and, well… young, while I was staring forty in the face.  And I remember thinking “I’d love to have my twenty year old body back, but I wouldn’t want the mind back for all the tea in China.”  This was not because I wasn’t as smart at thirty as I was at forty (for a given definition of smart.  Shut up you, and stop giggling.  Also, pointing is rude.)  It was because at thirty I was still afraid that if I opened my mouth and disagreed with people, people would hate me.  Yes, at forty I was afraid they’d fire me (or never hire me again) but I no longer cared if they liked me or not.  Frankly, if I judged them on their opinions (no, I don’t for a lot of people.  I think they haven’t examined where those would lead) I wouldn’t like a lot of them.  (It’s not defensible to support communism.  No, I don’t care.  It just isn’t.  That whole thing about the press reporting selectively?  Yeah.  If they’d reported on communism as they did on fascism, it would be about as acceptable in social circles.  It might have killed less than a hundred million people – though the quibbling is on the margins of the numbers – but it is still a disgusting, blood-stained doctrine based on envy, which, carried to its ends, leads to feudalism and oppression AND economic stagnation  And if you think it would work perfectly this time, you’d better show me what species you intend on using for this, because it doesn’t work with humans.  It can’t be tried in its “perfect” form because humans aren’t perfect.  If they were, a system wouldn’t be needed.)

And you know what, I’ve found that in writing and in life, keeping your opinions and… your SELF under wraps distorts who you are.  It is that distortion and hesitancy that makes the writing come across as lacking in flavor.  And as for the life…  Well, I’m not recommending any of you go out and mouth off and do yourself out of your job or home.  But I AM recommending that when absolutely needed you don’t keep your mouth shut and you don’t falsify preference.

Will it cost you?  Oh, heck yes.  You pay for everything in life, be it in money or not.  (And that’s another reason communism doesn’t work.  You can’t abolish cost.  To be alive is to work for a living and if you don’t, someone is doing it for you.)  Usually what you don’t pay for in money is far more hideously expensive.

I’m sure since I started talking (has it only been a little over a year?  Really?) it’s cost me.  But here’s the thing – it was costing me before.  It was costing me in stress and emotional twisting.  And it wasn’t getting me all that far, possibly because it wasn’t my “true voice.”

But what, you’ll say, if you’re wrong?  What if the things you believe aren’t true?  Well, if you’re wrong be wrong on your own.  Make your own mistakes.  You’re going to make mistakes, anyway – yours or someone else’s.  Which would you rather make?

I guarantee if you write long enough you’ll come to look at one or more of your books as “Good Lord, I wrote that?  What was I thinking?  Didn’t I know a thing about history?”  And I guarantee if you live long enough you’ll live to laugh at one or more of your opinions.

But when your grandkids ask if you were really an unrestrained gold-standardist, Reformed, do you want to tell them “Yeah, this is why I thought it was a good idea at the time,” or “No, but I had to say that to get published?”  I know which one I’d prefer.

So, go forth and live – and write – out loud.  What’s the worst that can happen?  Yeah, you could die for it.  But isn’t it better than living for nothing?

23 thoughts on “Being Myself Outloud

  1. I would argue that the question “What if you’re wrong?” and variations on that theme come from morally lazy people who KNOW they’re wrong and don’t want to change, for whatever reason, and are afraid they’ll be judged for their sins.

    The other side of the coin is that one has the responsibility NOT TO BE WRONG. Surely, we are all flawed, frail, flesh. However, to be as sure as we can be given our limitations of the righteousness of our stances is a duty all men owe to the species. To do otherwise strikes me as moral laziness. (See above.)

    Am I too harshly judgmental? Possibly. Do I care? No.

    And thank you for this post. You have helped me work through what has been — for me — a thorny thicket. Bless you.


    1. Mark,
      well… maybe, but it’s different for women, particularly young women. I confess to not having statistical proof, but my experience of being a woman and observing other young women, women seem “built to conform” and often it’s very hard for even an intelligent young woman to convince herself she’s right when she disagrees with her — perceived — society. I think it’s genetic, and that’s why it persists despite all attempts at “empowering” women. I remember being horribly afraid that I was or would be perceived as “crazy” when I disagreed with my group. For me this is lessening with age. Can’t speak for other females. Fear of being wrong keeps a lot of us quiet.

      And opinions change. Sometimes you simply don’t have ALL the facts, yet. Sometimes the facts need to play themselves out on the world stage, before you “get” it and change your mind. Which is no reason to stay quiet. Sometimes the very act of speaking out allows you to discover facts. And it’s never a reason to repress someone else’s speech. Though you’re also not compelled to agree.

      1. ::Squirrel!::

        One of the things I’m hoping to explore with Dolly — being an artificial person who didn’t grow up in the normal way — is what the heck do we do to our girls. What is it that takes a fearless toddler and turns her into a mouse by the time she’s eight? Is it genetic? Or is it cultural? This is a subject on which I do not have firm opinions — only questions.

        That’s my tangent for the day.


      2. Women raise children (okay: evolved as the primary child-rearing agents. Sheesh.) This entails teaching the child proper social rules. Which entails corporate action with other child-rearing agents. Which means making sure other parties participating in rearing your child hold mores identical or very similar to your own. Which means if the gal next door holds crazy opinions (like, maybe there are some things the government doesn’t need to be doing for everybody) you aren’t going to let her kids play with yours and you dang sure aren’t letting her WATCH over your kids while you run out to pick up the family groceries.

        In your case it was probably worse, being new to the USA and not knowing where all the cultural landmines lay (not that native-born Americans always know, either: I acquired the phrase “yard-ape” from a grad student friend who used it in reference to HER kids, only to be severely chastised as insensitive after casually using it in front of another – more liberal – friend. Let’s not even start in on those words which the ignorant confuse with other words and get warped, such as snigger or niggardly.)

        Men evolved less socially: Ook have some weird opinions, like use funny yellow rocks instead of leaves for money, but him good with spear and won’t run from boar.

      3. I see this in my students. I find my female students strive for consensus, while the males strive for recognition.

        I know that when a guy pops up with a comment, that he thinks is brilliant, that a half dozen girls in the class had already had that thought. I can see it on their faces. But they sit on those comments and don’t get the credit. So I try to goad them as much as I can, but then I’m a man, goading women to be more assertive, and I worry that THAT will be perceived as sexist! Oh, well, it must be done.

    2. If I am WRONG about something (an increasingly rare phenomenon) I would rather be corrected (providing you actually CAN correct me, which entails demonstrating the error and explaining how I am wrong; just slapping me on the nose with a rolled up newspaper serves to convince me I am NOT wrong and you just don’t like my truth.) It took me a number of years but I eventually realized I had never corrected a mistake I wasn’t aware of, and I MUCH prefer actually being right to merely thinking I am.

      Ain’t nobody perfect, we all get some things wrong and there’s nuthin’ wrong with that — but when you’ve gotten something wrong in spite of your best efforts, is the proper response: a) kick sand over it b) plug fingers into ears while chanting neener-neener c) assault whoever proved you wrong or d) correct the error?
      (Personally, I lean toward answer b), because I look so cute doing it.

  2. I want lolcat editors! (Yeah, my brain zooms in on the superficial while mulling over the deep. Sorry!)

      1. Define editors. As I read that, there was a kitten exploring my keyboard. Is an editor one who makes changes to a work? Or is the definition stricter? Chester, batting at my keys as I type is editing my work — however unwelcome be his intentions.

      2. I suspect that’s “co-author,” Mark — he’s working in real-time… 😉

        Now, if he starts adjusting your commas when you’re done with a sentence…

  3. Preference falsification – Joan Didion. Started out writing for National Review. Admits she’s horribly timid. Writes the required amount of PC stuff, but her conservative self keeps peeking out. “Democracy,” about the end of the Vietnam war, is worth checking out.

    1. Charles,
      Next week, early, we need to talk about restoring your internet access. I’m not JOKING or being snide when I say you need to start a blog. Let’s move on internet access, and then I’ll help you set one up.

  4. Yeah, girls tend to be more group oriented. It has its good sides – girls form incredibly close friendships, but have a harder time bucking the group. Guys don’t form friendships at that level of intimacy (I always laugh when I read that serial killer Ted Bundy’s regular basketball buddies had no clue anything was wrong), but guys also have no problem not just openly disagreeing with each other, but, say, beating each other soundly at sports. A lot of girls will get mad if that happens.

    This hit home with me when I saw a documentary on bootcamp, which is designed to break down that obstinate refuse-to-join mentality a lot of young men have, and get them to form a team. Works for a lot of guys, but terrible for most girls, who need the opposite – girls join groups just fine, but need a push to stand up for themselves as individuals.

    And yes, turning 40 was so liberating! I wouldn’t go back, either. It’s not that I don’t care if people like me, I’ve just reached the point where I know how to say things and people will still like me, and maybe even think a bit about what I say. (I watched my father, the auditor (whose job was to tell the client that they weren’t going to make as much as they thought and charge them a mint to do so, in a way that they’d hire him again next year), who, when he hears someone say something dumb, just smiles and says, “Oh really, why do you think that?” and just keeps saying that as they answer, with a few “Oh, but that’s not true, the facts are actually this” interspersed in there, until they can’t talk anymore. ^_^)

  5. The first writing of yours I read was some of your Pajamas Media articles (you can thank Lin W. for introducing me to them) and likeing them I picked up Darkship Thieves when it came out, and then because I really liked it I went back and read some of your older works. I tend to not read a lot of fantasy unless I already like the author, because it is not my favorite genre so it takes a good author in my opinion to write good fantasy. Your older works are good, but your ‘voice’ really comes through in the newer books and makes them even better. I can’t point out the differences, but I have seen it in several authors that when they quit toeing the the party line, either because they developed enough of a following to be able to throw their weight around with publishers, or because they switched to a publisher that would publish what they really wanted to write, that their work developed a deeper thread that really drags readers in. It won’t make a bad writer good, but it will make a good writer even better.

    1. That’s part of it, I think, though the other part might be maturation. There was a hint of the mature Heinlein in Double Star, but it wasn’t till much later that he developed what I call “full voice” — Pratchett, though that I know he doesn’t hide his politics, didn’t develop full voice till he left Rincewind behind. I know what you mean, the problem is knowing how to do it consciously.

        1. uh… Travis, from the inside of the blog, you show at least three icons, and I never know which will show. I don’t do anything to them, though, so take it up with the small gods of wordpress. (Grumble. Hard enough to do something with MY icon!)

  6. Yes: Confidence can be a magic elixir. It improves everything that’s not utterly hopeless. (You’ll know which stuff is “utterly hopeless” when it doesn’t improve.) But as Ron Popeil would say, wait: there’s more!

    Confidence without conviction is pointless.

    Every salesman who achieves even the least success does so because he sincerely believes in his product, and conveys that to his customers. Fiction is no exception. But quite a lot of writers are afraid to express any strong conviction in their stories. Thus, their stories have little to no theme to them. Even if the pacing and plotting keep the reader glued to the book to the very last page, his reaction at the end is more likely than not to be “What was the point of that?”

    Another term for writing with conviction is “writing from the heart.”

    Robert M. Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, wrote: “You say you want to paint a perfect painting? Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it.” That was a trifle facile, but it’s essentially about this very subject. The more confidence you have in yourself and your convictions both, the better storyteller you’ll be…and the more likely it is that those who read your work will cherish it, return to it, and press it upon their friends and loved ones.

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