By Liz Massey, Oct. 9, 2014.
In my personal library, I probably own at least several dozen books on how to write nonfiction. I’ve read dozens more. So I was pleasantly surprised recently when I discovered Writing is My Drink, by Theo Pauline Nestor, which interweaves Nestor’s journey to become an accomplished author and writing teacher with tips on how to develop a distinctive writing voice.
What I found surprising was how fresh her prose seemed, even when recounting incidents from her childhood and young adulthood, which happened 20 to 40 years ago. And the book highlighted for me how crucial communicating with an authentic voice — whether literally or on the page — is to living a life one can be proud of.
It’s easy to get sidetracked from speaking or writing authentically. At its worst, journalism schools can encourage students to follow formulaic approaches that stall efforts when a writer decides to shift from news stories to something more personal.
As a teen writer, I had my moments when I thought I should ape my favorite authors of the time: E.B. White and Robert Pirsig. In both cases, the result was so artificial that I couldn’t even finish the piece. But shortly after that, I discovered I had a knack for writing parody and satire, and spent most of my high school and college years writing in that genre for local, regional and national publications.
My early writing career hummed along until I came out at 21. Then something changed; it seemed as if when my closet door swung open, the gates to my ability to write humor clanged shut.
Some of this is due to the fact that I didn’t feel as if I could be out at my day jobs in my 20s. I stuck to writing assignments that were “safe” — profiles and event recaps — where I could hide behind the façade of the reporter and not have to reveal very much of my personal life.
I continued to learn and grow as a writer, but I hated that I felt as if I couldn’t write the same things I used to.
By 2000, I had begun tentatively and selectively coming out to people on the job. This phenomenon got a major boost when I was hired as managing editor of Echo that year.
Overnight, I went from obligatory discreetness to almost mandatory self-disclosure. It was a bit disconcerting at first, but it felt good. And I started writing humor again regularly. Since that time, I’ve shared a number of highlights and lowlights in my life through humor — including the comedy that is my participation in home improvement projects with my spouse, the cute utterances of my then-tiny grandson, and my (clearly brilliant!) ideas for producing gay-themed musicals and creating official queer holidays.
Becoming an editor helped me see the other side of the “writing with a distinctive voice” quandary. My writers needed to please me to get into print, and they all tried — some of them way too hard, and in all the wrong ways. But the experience has taught me that our voices are spoken (or written) in a context that includes others, and that one of the biggest feats is to figure out how to present our communications in a “container” that our peers can accept, without sacrificing our individual uniqueness.
Learning how to write with a distinctive voice hasn’t protected me from tragedy or heartbreak, but it has allowed me to uncover resources to cope with them. And it has helped me help other writers develop their personal strengths, which are the building blocks of any successful writing career.
In her book, Nestor reminds writers that, “We give most to others when we are fully ourselves.” It’s true that our real self is messy, imperfect and uneven. But it is the only self we’ll ever have to work with, and from my perspective, it’s where all the goodies of human existence reside.