On Writing: Chris Campion guest essay

by

Back to the Start: Reclaiming Your Voice

and Confidence in Writing

by Chris Campion

Chris Campion

Chris Campion

Some time ago, I couldn’t stand the sight of anything I was writing. I’d turn out paragraphs, even pages, only to delete nearly everything without hesitation or remorse. I’d stare at the blank computer screen for an eternity, and after I’d mustered some kind of confidence and managed to write maybe a sentence, I’d edit it to death, and then delete even that. I just couldn’t seem to get started. And when I finally got some kind of workable material, I wasn’t able to finish it. My writing desk was littered with openings and random scenes that led nowhere. And they weren’t even darlings—things I loved and didn’t want to murder—they were more like failed science experiments that yielded no gain.

Nothing I was writing looked or sounded right. Nothing in my voice moved me. And none of my characters-in-progress held my interest for more than two seconds. I wanted to write but couldn’t. I was completely stuck, and I soon fell into a kind of depression since I was no longer able to do what I loved.

Not to be outdone by, well, myself, I went back and scoured my bookshelves for inspiration and fresh approaches.I tried Cormac McCarthy’s Biblically-voiced run-on sentences and larger-than-life similes; I raised the bar on my diction and attempted Jonathan Franzen’s The New Yorker-style magniloquent prose and modern cynicism; I tried Raymond Carver’s über-bare bones writing and slice-of-life issues of domesticity. Thinking that maybe I was writing in a far-too-limited point of view, I tried grandiose omniscience like that of Tolstoy, Ayn Rand, and Thomas Wolfe. Of course, I tried my hand at creating pulse-pounding plots like that of James Patterson, Dan Brown, and John Grisham. Finally, I thought that perhaps I should produce something completely off-the-hook and redefining like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

But, alas, all the reading and mimicking I’d hoped would rejuvenate me had only pulled me deeper into my own pit of artistic malaise. It seemed that every writer I was reading just had this natural ability to construct perfect sentences and stories that would knock me on my ass. Whatever it was they had—that je ne sais quoi—I sure as hell didn’t have it.

This soon brought on fears of becoming a coffee-shop lizard, quoting passages from novels and telling everyone how I “used to write.” Or bettermystery man yet, a Dostoyevsky-looking flaneur in heavy beard and long pea coat, wandering the streets and trying to figure where my mind had gone; everyone passing me and seeing the irreversible battle damage from attempting to be a writer. Okay, maybe I’m getting a little carried away here, but I was pretty upset.

Anyway, feeling like I had nowhere else to turn, I went back to my old files and (you may want to cover your eyes for this) read the first few short stories I’d ever written. Yes, it was as painful as you can imagine. Things like tense consistency, point of view, show and don’t tell, punctuation, and so forth were pretty much nonexistent. It was one step shy of being the ramblings of a lunatic; and I hope I’ve learned a thing or two since then. But, I was noticing that I had almost no inhibitions on what I wrote. It seemed like, at the time, I was fearless and completely captivated with writing. It’d seemed raw, untamed, and well … moi.

It was as if each noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb and so on was a gorgeous lady at some extravagant ball. And the ladies put up no refusal to dance with me for as long as I’d wished. Every dance—every word written down—made me evermore in love with creating art from words. And I remembered further that my urge to read and revise pieces had been unquenchable. I think it was because I was never second-guessing myself or my voice. More specifically, I had great confidence (as much as I could have possessed at the time) in who I was, what I was going to write, and how I was going to write.

Thankfully, after this uncomfortable yet necessary act of rereading my old stuff, something struck my prima donna ego, and told me how I’d lost my edge: I was trying too hard to write like everyone else. I’d forgotten I had a unique voice and perspective of the world. And those are the most powerful and, arguably, most important things a writer can possess. Of course, you have to study and practice your craft; you can’t write any old thing and expect it to be gold just because your muse was really cooking that day. And you can’t put on the blinders and say to yourself: I don’t need advice, I know everything. But I do believe you have to keep a raw side—an untamed side that isn’t afraid to go beyond your self-placed artistic constructs for the sake of the story. A side that’s not afraid to lose yourself to be yourself.

In other words, too much studying and overanalyzing your approach, too much trying to incorporate learned techniques can actually not be a good thing. Asking yourself what this writer or that writer will think or whether this craft book will nod its head to your scribbling will always leave you questioning your work.

Therefore, I studied my old prose—amateur errors aside—and retaught what it was that seemed very natural, what glided like a stick of butter on a warm frying pan. Honestly, I can’t completely tell you what you should look for; it’s a very personal thing. But you’ll know it when you see it. I can tell you it usually sings like a song you’ve always wanted to hear, it excites you, makes you once again lose yourself just like the first time you had written it. There should be a sense of belief and wonder. There should be something in it that will make you feel empowered again and fired-up to write.

If you can’t find your old stories, you can try a kind of express approach by looking at some of your favorite Facebook posts. They’re usually the ones you’re most proud of, the ones that really display your voice and beliefs, and will probably have multiple “likes” and comments. You can go back and look at your favorite text messages (preferably not the drunk ones). You can also reclaim your confidence and hone your voice by starting a blog and write for no one but yourself. Keep in mind you don’t have to publish anything. You can find your old journals and reread the entries in which it looked as if it were your last day on earth, and you were going to write until the end.

It really doesn’t matter where you may have to go back and find it, just as long as you do. And to capitalize on a teachable moment here: try and save everything you write. Your taste will change over time, and what may have seemed like bunk last week could possibly be gold this week. You will constantly grow as a reader and a writer, and you need time to let your material congeal like a hot casserole pulled from the oven. It will taste different once cooled. So no need to immediately bite in only to burn your tongue.

En route, having gone back to the start, I felt the curse slowly lifted. Once again, I fell back in love with writing and had no trouble (mostly) putting words to the page. And when that annoying, overly-critical mental editor started yapping about how much I sucked compared to others and how I should just quit while I was ahead, I simply treated him like a telemarketer, hung up, and got back to work without any kind of second-guessing or remorse.

white men cant jumpYou might ask if all that reading and experimenting with other authors was for naught. I’d say no and yes. No, in the sense that you should experience other authors and see what makes their prose shine (or not shine). Yes, in the sense that the only person who you can write like—and should be writing like—is yourself. I read because it puts me in the proverbial “zone” that the movie White Men Can’t Jump so shamelessly taught the world back in 1992. It also builds my vocab, reinforces grammar and punctuation (which I will never profess to be a master at), makes me a better writer, and constantly opens my eyes to other approaches. I think Stephen King said it best in his book On Writing: “It’s all on the table.” And I’ll say it again: Don’t stop reading everything you can get your hands on. Consider reading as training for a UFC fight. Okay, less intensely stated, like a musician listening to music to become a more well-rounded musician and appreciator of music.

Now, as I look back on that lack-of-confidence spell or depression (or whatever we’ll call it), I believe I had suffered from some mutated form of writer’s block. I say this because at the time I had plenty of ideas stewing. Words were constantly flowing through my brain. My nose was always planted in a book. But, again, everything I wrote would soon be destroyed. I did find some of that material that had survived, and it wasn’t that bad. Like I said before, there’s a very personal but unmistakable quality that screams, “That’s a keeper! Don’t delete that! We’re on to something!”

A part of me wants to kick my own ass. How could things have gotten that bad? I guess I can’t blame myself too much. Before I had even stepped into day one of my MA, I had to read three books about writing: On Writing, Becoming a Writer, and Writing Down the Bones. Once class began, we jumped right into “workshopping” in which we ripped each others’ pieces apart like hungry dogs; we heard from panels of published authors and agents whose advice and approach to writing varied like the spectrum of species in the animal kingdom. Once we “pitched” to countless writers and realized how little we knew, we then picked our mentor and would go on to survive at least a year’s worth of artistic hazing, self-doubt, reevaluating, and the occasional I-am-awesome moment that lasted about four seconds because it was replaced by the I-still-suck moment. Okay, I’m once again being too dramatic. Actually the mentor experience was amazing. It was the meat and potatoes of the stephen-king-on-writingcourse. And I loved the personal attention and opportunity to finally begin to understand writing, as well as developing a newfound respect for my art. Honestly my mentor was probably the only one in my corner who really understood what I was going through. But all that never made writing any easier. In fact, it actually got harder because more was required of me.

Keep in mind the hurdles I’ve just mentioned are within the safe confines of an academic setting. As we all know, the world outside: rejections, querying agents, and the I-don’t-read-books discussions with people can be equally as harsh and as lonely to cope with.

Having said and experienced all this, it’s no wonder I had a moment where I was afraid to give birth to even a single sentence without having some kind of mental Cronus gobble it up like one of his newborn children. It’s no wonder I had a phase where that me in my writing no longer seemed to be important or even valuable to myself. But I am not the kind of person who goes around blaming everybody for my hang ups. I guess I’m kind of existentialist in that I believe it’s always my decision who and what I choose to be. However, I think I’m safe in saying that there are many snares and dark alleys that can side track a newbie writer and make them feel like it’s not worth it anymore. I think we all know how brave and lone-wolfish we’ve had to become because we are writers.

In the end, I believe the whole experience—this loss of confidence in myself—was a necessary evil. I had to lose what I didn’t even know I had in order to fully appreciate, cherish, and use it. Thankfully I was allowed to do that, because writing is different from losing something in the real world. Rarely can you reclaim what you once had in your short time on this earth. Fortunately, in your writing life, you can go back at any time and reclaim your creativity and make it even better than before. I believe writing can rejuvenate us like that.

And so, if you ever find yourself doubtful or feeling like what you are writing is horrible and not worth it, then go back to the start and find the material in which you were burning to write and let it ignite you once again. Although your ability as a writer will have no doubt improved since then, those pieces should have some kind of unique quality that will reset your urge to chain yourself to a desk and squeeze that story out as if your life depended on it. And once you reclaim that passion and confidence in your voice and jonesing to write, then guard it. I had lost mine and I barely knew how it had happened. This doesn’t mean that you should be closed-minded as a student of writing (I feel like I’ve hardly scratched the surface in terms of getting “decent”), but you should learn to sift through the “advice” and “suggestions” and “comments” and pick out what will truly help and what will not. And you shouldn’t be afraid to stand your ground if you feel that what you have written truly holds up. Because, again, writing (in my opinion) is largely subjective; the only (let’s say) “gauge” should be whether it’s effective or not. And still, you won’t please everyone, so make sure you are at least pleasing yourself. I think that’s all writing should truly be about. If you’re doing it just to make money, there are so much easier ways. I, for one, will not be quitting my day job anytime soon. But I suppose my day job keeps me running back to my books and keyboard.

So, to wrap it all up, guard your voice and guard your passion. And should you lose it, remember to go back to the start, or find something that reminds you of how much you love or used to love writing—whatever it is. I believe once a writer always a writer. And be careful of too much advice. I’m a hypocrite in that my desk is lined with books on craft, grammar, and literary philosophy. My Facebook has post after post from famous writers on technique, purpose, and what is effective writing. And I will always try and get someone else’s opinion on a piece that I’m working on. But I always try to guard the side of me that will truly know whether it passes or not. I hope that if I lose that side, I’ll now know where to find it. I pray that you will never lose your confidence in your voice and passion. It’s a very soul-crushing experience. However, should it happen, I hope this essay will help you find your way back.

Chris Campion has a MA in creative writing from Wilkes University. His fiction can be found at Fiction365.com and East Meets West, American Writers Journal. He is currently an MFA candidate at Wilkes.

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