Dave and me, hanging out @ The Experience Music Project in Seattle
This is the fourth post in an occasional series about finding inspiration in other artists’ creative processes. Read the first, about Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the second, featuring Trent Reznor, and the third, mourning the death of Scott Weiland, at the links.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a massive Dave Grohl fangirl. (Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana, and founded and fronts the Foo Fighters.) So when I heard Dave was keynoting the South By Southwest Conference a couple of years ago, in 2013, I blocked out an hour on my (then) day job’s Outlook calendar so I could watch the webcast uninterrupted.
Dave didn’t disappoint. In an f-bomb-laden, highly personal speech, and sporting ridiculously sexy reading glasses, Dave brought us along on his personal artistic journey, one inspired by wise parents and a love of punk rock. He reveled in his independence, developing and nurturing what he later recognized was his individual voice.
Voice. It’s an aspect of art, of craft, that musicians and writers share. It’s a tone, or a worldview, that makes a piece of work – or a body of work – belong uniquely to its creator.
Some key takeaways from Dave’s keynote that resonated for me:
“There is no right or wrong, there is only your voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s (expletive) gone.”
“Am I the best drummer in the world? Certainly not. Am I the best singer/songwriter? Not even in this (expletive) room. But I have been left alone to find my voice.”
“I am the musician, and I come first.”
This statement about creative control of one’s art, spoken with such certainty during a time when my traditional publisher and I were parting ways and indie publishing loomed on my horizon, shrilled into my very bones.
Somewhere along the line, I’d forgotten that.
I am the writer, and I come first.
I won’t forget it again.
I could quote from this keynote for hours – and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to it since Dave made it 2013 – but I think I’ll just let the man speak for himself. Here’s Dave, being all hot ‘n wise ‘n awesome. The video is 49:32; it’s well worth the time regardless of how you write or publish, and the language is NSFW.
Listen. Learn. Enjoy. And remind yourself, if you need to: “I am the writer, and I come first.”
I realize fifty minutes is a significant time investment, and that comments might be few and far between at the blog today. But if you’re inclined to comment:
Do you think there are lessons writers can learn from musicians, and publishing can learn from the music industry, about the intersection of art and commerce?
Is there a writer whose voice you absolutely adore? Why do you like it, and which book do you recommend we read to get a taste?
My children came into the world with two sets of grandparents and two sets of great-grandparents. Safe within the nurturing embrace of their large and loving family, they thrived.
I can’t recall whether Son was in kindergarten or first grade, but one day, he arrived home confused and agitated. A classmate claimed to have no grandparents. How could that be?
The shattering of normal had begun.
This is one of my favorite memes (sorry, Angelica, but Carolyn will always be Morticia to me). In one pithy sentence, the truth is revealed: Normal isn’t a wide brush that coats every life with the same paint. It’s a series of brushes comprised of various materials, camel hair, boar bristles, razor wire, each a different width and bearing a different color.
We’ve all heard or read about that mystical, magical, elusive element called Voice. From whence does it come? How do I get it?
The answer is simple. As you experience life, you acquire streaks, stripes, and spots of matte, satin, gloss, and glitter. It’s from that chromatic chaos tinting the neutral base of your inherent nature Voice emerges.
Voice is you–who you were, are, and even who you will become. If planning your next visit to an exotic land is your normal, that adventurous spirit will traipse across the page. A perennial optimist? Sunshine will light your words. Pessimist? Gloom will shadow your prose. Try though you might to disguise it, Voice will illuminate the real you.
Have things in your world ever become so overwhelming you wanted to divorce your life? Okay, maybe not divorce, but how about a legal separation? Or, at the very least, a lengthy vacation?
Life will, eventually, test every hope, dream, belief, and perception, pushing you to the edge of your mental and physical endurance. It will leave you asea, battling crashing waves, glowering skies, and circling sharks. Survival will demand all your attention. Day by day, you’ll struggle, hope for rescue, search the horizon for signs of land.
This becomes your normal.
Then, for better or worse, it will change. You’ll look back and either be relieved to have washed ashore or nostalgic for storm clouds because the sun is baking your brain.
Here’s the thing: As much as you curse what- or whoever tossed you overboard, there are things to be learned within your circumstances. Without these lessons, your stories will lack depth, credibility, and empathy.
Your Voice will lack resonance for your reader.
(Just for the record, the same holds true for joy and other aspects of living. Trials, however, seem to sharpen the learning curve.)
Authors, and their work, mature and grow within the framework of each individual’s normal. The frames are all different and constantly changing. Some are heavy and gilded, some thin strips of salvaged wood. Time can strip the gilding, embellish the wood, but within the frame, Voice, although evolving, remains unique.
Thus, I encourage you to reevaluate your normal, the joys, trials, and general messiness of living.
Accept it. Embrace it. Learn from it.
Put it to work.
The vanquished is always servant–or, in the fly’s case, dinner–to the victor.
A few weeks back, Liz Talley and Kim Law did a post in which they invited us to guess which paragraphs had been written by each of them. It was a fascinating exercise in the power of voice. Your voice as a writer makes you distinctive and keeps readers coming back for more. For many of us, it’s not even conscious – just the way we put words onto paper, a natural extension of how we see the world. Ask three writers to write the same scene and you will get three very different voices.
Today we’re going to play a little voice game, sort of a Ruby Name That Tune. How unique are our voices, after all? Can you identify these Rubies based only on the snippets? Guess who’s who in the comments and throughout the day I’ll be back to reveal the answers.
Ah…2014. Welcome! It’s a lovely year already, isn’t it? And I don’t say that simply because both Liz and I had a book come out yesterday. Though we did. And we both did little happy release day jigs. I suspect mine was more entertaining, though, because I did mine in my pajamas 😉 Because yeah, that’s the way I roll on New Year’s Day. Or maybe that only happened because I was doing revisions all day. Way to start the year off right, huh? (Insert sarcastic eye roll here.)
So anywho…since I was neck deep in a pile of mess I’m not sure I can write myself out of, I asked Liz to start us off for our release day celebration. We’re going to play a game. But first, Liz will talk just a bit about voice (because that feeds into the game). And then we’ll give examples from our latest books and you all will play “Guess the Author.” And of course we’ll finish up with blurbs and pretty new covers. Because we do have pretty new covers. The kind that make people do little release day jigs. 😀
Recently, I’ve been rereading a series I discovered when I was younger. It’s a five-book middle grade fantasy series based on Welsh mythology entitled The Chronicles of Prydain. Since I’ve become a writer myself, I can’t help but noticing the author’s craft. Something really jumped out at me this time. The author, Lloyd Alexander, is a real master of character voice.
Each of his characters has his own unique way of expressing himself, and that voice helps them leap off the page. You get an immediate sense, through a character’s dialogue, of who that character is.
Take, for example, Eilonwy, the heroine of the series. She’s a secret princess, a bit of a motor-mouth, and one of the first feisty heroines I read about. Oh, and she often showed more sense than many of the male characters. I loved her. I wanted her to be real so I could be her friend. One of the ways the author sets her speech apart from the others is her penchant for spouting similes and metaphors—and they’re often just this side of implausible.
Ah, voice. That ever important creative writing concept. One of the most misunderstood aspects in writing, yet quite possibly the most powerful.
Your “voice” is the way you speak on paper, and it’s as unique to you as your DNA or fingerprints. Voice depends on the style you choose – formal, informal, technical, chatty, poetic – and the words you choose to express this style, and it’s influenced by your past, your present, really everything that makes you YOU goes into it. An amalgamation of all your memories (both the good and the bad) and favorite things.
Last week, multiple-RITA-winner, Barbara Samuel, came and spoke to my local chapter, Washington Romance Writers, for an all-day workshop. During the afternoon she spoke about the heroine’s journey (as opposed to the Hero’s Journey, which we commonly hear). I had to miss that one because even though playing with Daddy is super fun, my toddler needed some time with Mommy, so I had to make it a half-day only.
But I was there for her morning workshop, which was all about voice. And if you’ve ever read Barbara Samuel, you know she’s got it in spades. At her request, we did not tape that session to share with our members who couldn’t be there, since it consisted mostly of a series of hands-on writing exercises, but she did give us permission to share one particular brainstorming exercise with our critique partners. And since I found it quite illuminating, I decided to share it with you.
It was simple, really. While she was telling us the rules, I found myself rolling my eyes and saying “Uh, why?” But towards the end, after she asked some volunteers to share their lists, I got it. And it was uncanny how spot on it was.
So here goes.
I want you to pull out a piece of paper and a pen. No, seriously. Just do it. I’ll wait.
You ready? Let’s go!
Step 1: List your Top Ten favorite movies of all time. Doesn’t have to be in any particular order. Just a random list is fine. And no cheating. I don’t want to see what you think you should be listing, but your honest picks. We’re not here to impress anyone. What are your go-to movies that you’ll come back to time and again?
Step 2: List your favorite book from when you were a teenager.
Step 3: Now your favorite book that you’ve read in the past 6 months. Again, no cheating. Don’t list it unless you really did read it within the past 6 months, and it needs to be honest.
OK, everyone done? Anyone want to share? If so, list your picks in the comments section. Please be honest. If you’re doing this correctly, this should be a very good reflection of your voice, and I should be able to figure out what genre you write. (And if I’m wrong, then maybe this is actually telling you what you SHOULD be writing…)
(This one was hard. To be completely honest, I didn’t do a ton of fun reading as a teen — mostly the books I read for English class (some of which I really did love). I did a lot more reading for pure pleasure as a preteen than a teen (probably because I spent my teen years in the dance studio and didn’t have a lot of time). So even though I think she was looking for your fave book from when you were well into your teens (such as age 15), I went with one from a little bit younger, since that book really stuck with me. I’d read it for the first time when I was probably 9 or 10, but then continued to read it again yearly until college. I found a used copy a couple of years ago and decided to give it a try, wondering how it would hold up now that I’m an adult. It did NOT disappoint. In fact, I think it got even better!)
(This one was also really difficult to answer, since I’ve read sooooo many awesome books lately, especially from my fellow Rubies! But I had to choose just one — which was really mean of Barbara, by the way — and I was lucky enough to get to read an ARC of this fab YA mystery and let me tell you…Gemma’s books really ought to come with a surgeon general’s warning. They’re really THAT addictive!)
OK, I’m done. Did anyone notice a pattern here? I hope you did, especially since I answered completely honestly (and relatively quickly…you’re not allowed to spend a long time thinking this through — it should be your first impressions). I promise you these were the exact answers I wrote in my notebook during that workshop, and I had no clue why she was asking this question at the time I wrote this list, either, so I wasn’t cheating.
Judging from my list, what would you guess I write? If you’re not familiar with my writing, go check out my profile and book list. (Yup…YA with mystery elements and a theme of dancing.) Would you have guessed that from my list? Kinda cool, huh?
OK, your turn. What does your list tell you about your unique voice?
Recently I had the pleasure of sitting in a session of first page reads, hearing feedback (i.e. their actual thoughts as if we weren’t in the room) from agents and editors as pages were read to them. I’ve done this several times over the past few years, and though it’s one of the more brutal things to sit through (whether it’s your work being read or someone else’s), I’m always grateful for the time these industry professional give to do this, as so much can be learned from this one experience.
Do some writers have such strong voices that we might be able to recognize them from a few lines pulled from one of their books?
I don’t know. So, in the spirit of fun and discovery, I’ve pulled a dozen short sections from romance novels written by ten of our genre’s modern superstars.
How many voices do you recognize without turning to your bookshelf (or the Internet)? Do you hear a voice similar to your own among the samples? Are there any that go completely against the grain of your writing – or that you itch to “fix”?