Today, I’m not a Writer; at best, I’m someone who writes— letters, journal entries, blogs, articles, books. My current work-in-progress, Smiling Is Not Resilience (working title number 36) has stalled. A memoir, sequel no less, that’s kicking my ass. I’m frustrated and wonder, Seriously, is it worth it? Can I write it so that anyone gets it? I mean really gets it? (In consoling pep talks Real Writers tell me this is common when working on something we’re passionate about. Nope. Doesn’t make me feel any better but thanks for including me in the Real Writers’ club.) I’ve lost something crucial during this labored process. I’ve lost my true voice.
I’ve had this slow leak since I can remember. This depleted condition because life sucks out just a bit more than it puts in. A deficit I’ve not handled well despite what most need to believe and as documented in my first published memoir Cross My Heart and Hope to Die. The job that pays the bills is zapping way too much energy right now. My past floods my present nullifying my pseudo-Zen state. My revised living-in-the-moment philosophy gets screwed up every time I flip the calendar and admit I’m no closer to wherever it is I think I should be. My personal support network is dying off. God, and I’m so weary of the what-doesn’t-kill-you-only-makes-you-stronger mantra as neighbors and friends lose jobs and homes. Despite our strides with cancer every third call from my Brooklyn stomping grounds brings news of another who’s neither surviving nor winning the fight, which forces the question: Who IS benefitting from all the pink ribbons and walks-for-the cure? Sometimes what doesn’t kill you just makes you wish you were dead. See, this is my true voice.
My true voice is dark, heavy, gritty. It’s less censored with a sharp edge that makes people break eye contact. My true voice, like my true self, shouts The emperor has no clothes! It questions everything. It doesn’t mimic. It often sounds alone in crowded spaces, but always, always connects with that someone who pulls me aside and whispers I know what you mean. I have a similar story. I understand. Fringe folks.
As a Writer, or one who writes, we’re told to find our voice. I read A LOT. Now, to me “our voice” is basically a standardized voice that follows a script. It’s the Voice that Readers want to hear. The Voice says trust me, empathize with me. I’m an expert at this so know that I may take you through some scary shit but in the end we will conquer anything heaven and earth hurl at us. The Voice reminds me of the guys who want to bed me then disappear afterwards taking all their sweet talk and promises with them. Readers don’t like angry voices, whiney voices, holier-than-thou voices, overly critical voices, or voices that don’t show a healthy objectivity to whatever trauma has caused them to speak. No, Readers don’t want anything that sounds too much like…well readers.
And don’t get me wrong. I get that the Voice has to have some credibility I’m just thinking sometimes the credibility is acknowledging that it has no credibility. The Voice is often as screwed up as the Reader despite how well groomed the Voice sounds between the sheets. And trust me the Voice is groomed. Mentors, editors, publishers, agents, fellow writers, critics will take that true voice and gently mold it, shape it, nudge it into the Voice of the Reader, a voice so triumphant you can hear the orchestra playing by the last page.
This can’t be every reader because… I’m also a reader. I scour library stacks, Amazon.com, used book stores like an addict in search of a fix that resonates with my true self. I find a handful of well written, engaging books—fiction and non fiction—with no happy endings or empty sweet talk. Too few. I’m looking for raw truth—emotional and otherwise. When I flip to the author bio let me see someone who looks like me and/or has lived where I lived, lost as I’ve lost, struggles as I struggle. Someone who makes me ask, “I wonder how she’s doing right now?”
I have read and reread my favorite writers from youth. The ones I found in those early days—James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison—tackled the hard issues, addressed the angst so common it felt normal. I connected with characters in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Some Call It Sleep and they helped me hang on. I recently read The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks by Robin Romm described as a blisteringly angry memoir by USA Today. Lynda Barry’s illustrated novel Cruddy, Swimming Naked a novel by Stacy Sims, Say You’re One of Them by Akpan, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and yes, give me more like these that prove not every voice has to follow the script.
Now I’ve said it, come what may. I don’t know if tomorrow I’ll wake up feeling like a Writer, with my true voice in tact. I honestly don’t know if I can dig into that memoir again, relive the things I’ll never get over, and write for the reader in me.