Every writer has a voice but me

The more I explore personal essays, the more I fear using the present tense that is a hallmark of many essays.

I sit by the bank of the river.  The birds call to me, come swim, jump in.  I want to tell them the water is too cold.  They mock me and I feel tears start.  This is the day my childhood ends.

Okay, I made that up, but just to share an example.  I’m worried about imitating that style and not using my own writing voice.  I know how I write, especially my blog, where I am most free, having no editorial demands.  I use triplets a lot – I list things in threes.  I think that’s a hallmark of my writing and I hope it’s a good thing and not contrived or just dumm.  This Southern Sin essay is what’s really blowing my mind, especially because my goal is to win the contest.  I don’t want it to be stilted and sound phony.  Ironically, although I blog like hell (or used to) writing a personal essay seems so daunting.  I think I’m approaching it the wrong way.  I think I need to just do a boatload of reporting and then let her rip.

How will I know if my writing, my voice, is genuine?  I started reading this essay in the New Yorker this morning and I thought shoot, I could do this.  I just don’t know if I could do it so it sounds like Ruth wrote it, not some MFA student.  It sounds corny, but in a way I need to be in touch with who I am – like I’m listening to Peter Gabriel right now, and it’s making me think of 20 years ago, when I hung out with that crowd I hung out with (amateur musicians, guys I crushed, drinkin’, etc.).  So if I can know that part of me that is moved by Peter Gabriel, maybe I can genuinely be the person who writes it.  Whoa, that sounds crazy.  I think I have the music too loud.

Let’s try this…

There is a whistle-like instrument floating behind the melody.  Is it a real instrument?  It doesn’t matter because it makes the atmosphere of the song so dreamy. 

When I first heard the song, in 1993, I was newly divorced from a mean, mean man.  The song was among those that are emblems of my life back then.  My pals who had a mostly amateur band and who totally loved Peter Gabriel.  “Kiss That Frog” – it was so funny to us.

That was gobbledygook off the top of my head, but the change in tense felt right, not phony.  Maybe I need to keep doing this until it feels right.  Like musical scales.  I can be a writer, a good writer.  I just need to practice all the time.

I got the Goucher residency schedule in today’s email.  So excited!!!!!  I still haven’t decided if I’m flying or driving out there.  My husband is opposed to me driving because it’s dangerous, and he has a point.  The airfare is just so damn high!  And if I had a car I would have more freedom to visit people and try to get to taraweeh when the schedule permits.

Oh, so of course now I know who my “cohort” will be – the other five students who will be Suzannah Lessard’s mentees.  Just gauging by Google searches, looks like the experience level varies.  One of the people in my group is someone I had contacted about the program.  We have communicated by email and it will be nice to meet her.

I just need to keep writing.  I believe I will gain confidence if I do.

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I like magazines

It’s been almost eight months since I ventured back into freelance journalism, and I have to believe that it’s what I was meant to do.  Not in a la-la I wanna be Anne Sexton when I grow up kind of way, but based on how things have been going, the things God has sent my way and those He hasn’t.  Before I decided to close Light of Islam (the educational center and bookstore I ran for three years), I said the istikhara prayer, the second part of which is:

Oh Allah! If in Your knowledge, [the decision I’m facing] is good for my religion, my livelihood and my affairs, immediate and in the future, then ordain it for me, make it easy for me, and bless it for me. And if in Your knowledge, [the decision I’m facing] is bad for my religion, my livelihood and my affairs, immediate and in the future, then turn it away from me, and turn me away from it. And ordain for me the good wherever it may be, and make me content with it.

And He has made writing easy for me, and entering Goucher’s program (despite what I consider a poor application essay and a late recommendation).  None of my magazine pitches has been rejected, and in musing on this I realized that I have been writing solely for magazines.  I’m becoming more aware of freelancers’ bylines in the Chronicle, and I have thought about trying to do paid writing for them in addition to the blogging.  It’s a good goal, but the more magazine writing I do the more I’m sure that what I want to do is feature writing.  Even when I think a topic isn’t interesting, I end up learning so much.  And the CNF contest essay is totally a brave new world for me, and I am enjoying the challenge of both the reporting and the writing of it.

Bottom line is when an editor tells me:

You do a really nice job with your reporting and writing, and we definitely want to use you again.

I have to feel I’m doing the right thing, and probably in the right genre.

Taking steps or building bricks: pick your metaphor

This is just my 100-word or so blog, so I get to be lazy with rhetorical devices (and questionably grab book covers off Amazon.com, I guess).

The point is that I got notification that “The Patron Saint of Dreams,” an essay collection by Philip Gerard, will be required reading this semester.  It’s serendipitous for two reasons: I had already bought it as part of my read-Goucher-faculty-work extravaganza (although it ended up in a box somewhere in the disaster of my office – thank God I found it).  Second, it’s a book of…essays…and I’m working on a lengthy…essay…the one for Creative Nonfiction’s contest.  I have two months to pull this thing together, and I’m hoping that Gerard’s book will learn me to write good.

We are also required to have the Chicago Manual of Style, which I ordered off Amazon, and in order to get free shipping I had to order more cheap books, so as usual a small purchase ended up being a $25 purchase, which now that I think of it is also fortunate because I ordered one book each by three of my mentor choices.  (We’re supposed to hear next week who our fall mentors will be.)  Of course I’m already fairly well-read in my fourth mentor pick, Thomas French.  Right now I’m reading “Home Town” by Tracy Kidder, which I’m finding – sorry, sorry, sorry – boring.  It’s what I worry my MFA thesis will be – a series of character descriptions, facts and history of a small town which would be interesting broken down into parts but just doesn’t hang together as a book.  So I guess I’m learning from that, too.

Can you tell I’m getting really, really, really excited about school?

Happy or goofy? Vanity says the latter

Here’s one of the photos I had taken yesterday, in color and black and white.  I think I look so funny and weird, although the photographer really loved it and talked me into buying it.  At the beginning of the session I was kind of stiff and didn’t know quite how to pose.  After a little while we started just talking and I don’t even remember what it was about but I started honestly laughing and making faces, and that was what he captured.  From the inside, I don’t imagine I look this way, but obviously that laughing self is who I project.  An interesting way to gain insight.

My kingdom for a topic!

Ugh – for days now I’ve been promising myself to write a post on my Houston Chronicle blog – it’s been months since I did.  I just can’t come up with a topic I’m willing, happy and comfortable writing about. When I first closed the bookstore and ventured forth as a freelancer I spent the first three or four weeks completely dry.  I didn’t know what I was doing or when or how.  I feel that way now – it seems like it should be simple enough.  Am I being a perfectionist or is my brain really that dry?

On other fronts, I had a series of new head shots taken today.  One of them now graces my home page.  What do you think?

Writing without judgment

I’m catching up on reading Thomas French’s work.  Yesterday I printed out (using much paper and ink) his series “The Exorcist in Love” and most of “Angels & Demons” (I didn’t print the whole thing because I was using much paper and ink).  I read The Exorcist in Love yesterday and the whole time my inner voice was saying yes! yes! yes!  His approach is so similar to what I want to do with the street preacher story.  I don’t want to judge the preachers for what they do, even though many people would.  Their stories are what they are and they are who they are and they have something to offer our understanding of the world even if you don’t agree with their viewpoint or their methods.  That’s part of what gets me so excited about this kind of reporting.  Like my masters project, profiles of drug court offenders.  They weren’t necessarily pillars of society, but their stories are instructive nevertheless.  Same with the witches I’ve been trying to hang out with.

I’ve been thinking about crime as a topic lately, especially because it’s a subject I come across fairly frequently in the nonfiction I’ve been reading.  I am obsessed with crime and especially psychopathology.  My friend who is a social psychologist and knows about my obsession told me a couple years ago she came across a paper about a study of people like me.  The conclusion was that obsession with crime is a protective mechanism – in other words, the more you know about how criminals do things and why, the safer you can be from them.  I find that interesting, too.

At any rate, it’s seems only natural for me to put my inappropriately vast knowledge of crime and criminals to use in my writing, but here’s the challenge I see: crime by its nature is compelling.  The story of a serial killer will always be dramatic because it’s so rare and so horrifying.  So how do you tell crime stories with a special point of view?  How do you make sure you delve deeper into the story than just recounting the crime, the psychopath’s childhood blah blah blah?  It’s something I want to talk over with my mentor when the residency starts in July.

Speaking of which, we got our “mentor selection sheet,” asking for the names of four faculty members we would like to mentor us.  My number one was, of course, French.  Two, three and four were: Suzannah Lessard, Richard Todd and Jacob Levenson.  We also got a “sneak preview” of the residency program, which included a description of a talk by Sarah Koenig, a producer with This American Life, about which I’m so stoked because I have long had an interest in radio.  Yay!

Anyway, back to plowing through all the reading I’ve assigned myself.  I tend to spend Sunday afternoons reading.

Cover me

I got my three complimentary copies of the June Toastmaster issue and was quite surprised to see that my article on music is the cover story!  That was a wonderful boost.  It’s great to feel successful in magazine writing, but I still wish I had my foot in the door of more serious publications, or more serious stories, or something deeper than what I’m doing (although I guess feature stories are as deep as you make them).  I am excited to see what Goucher will bring.