How to Find your Voice
Here's my favorite, this might be my favorite, I don't know, I love all this stuff so much. But this may be my favorite part. Why you can't possibly be an imposter, so stop pretending you are one. What do I mean by that? Well, these are some of my students' comments. "Wow, do I love bookstores. "Wow, there's so many books in here. "How could I possible ever stand out in here?" Right? "I can never write as well as Anne Lamott, Tina Fey." This is my friend, Lisa Jones. Her first drafts are brilliant. I will never let anyone see my first draft. Who can't you write like, shout it out.
[Shy Audience Member] Me.
You can't write like you? Who can't you write like, that you think you should be able to write like? Anybody?
[Female Audience Member] Cheryl Strayed.
Cheryl Strayed, ah, right on. Anybody else?
[Nervous Audience Member] David Sedaris.
David Sedaris, excellent, oh yes. One more?
[Excited Audience Member] Neil Gaiman.
Neil Gaiman, yes. All right, all very good. So, if ...
I can't write like that, why should I bother, is basically what I'm saying. Everything I might write about someone else has already said. They said it brilliant-er, they said it faster. (quickly mumbling) This is so hard. If I was a real writer, it wouldn't be so hard. And I swear to God, I did not write that one, (laughing) someone else did, right? So because the process, or something about the process, is hard that means that I'm an imposter, that I really shouldn't be able to do that. So here's what I've come to understand. And I've had to learn this over and over again. I'm having to learn it right now, writing this memoir. You can't possibly be an imposter except if you ignore yourself. So let me tell you a story. When I was writing my first book, The Woman's Comfort Book, the idea came to me not too long after that conversation with my friend. When she said, "You're not really a writer, "it's so hard for you." She totally made me feel like I was an imposter, she confirmed my worst fear about myself. If it wasn't easy for me, I had no business doing it. And I decided a few weeks later to take a month off from screenwriting. Which sounds like, yeah, so why are you telling us this, no big deal. But it literally felt to me at that point in my life, at 26 years old, that I was gonna die. It was how important that quest was for me. How important my identity as a writer was. And, when I really agreed with myself I was gonna take this time off and be kind to myself for the first time, the title for my first book, The Woman's Comfort Book, popped into my head as clearly as if you'd said it to me right now. And I remember looking around my little apartment going, "That's weird." And I knew it was a good idea. But I didn't know what it meant. And this is so important. We get ideas, we get inspiration, right? But we don't know what it is until we grow into it, until we experience it. Until we become the person who can write it. But when the idea came, I was like, okay, that's cool, but I kind of shelved it away, still wanted to be screenwriter. Spent the next two years just sort of exploring. What might that book be about? Learning things, growing, really loving the idea. And finally sat down to write the book proposal. But the imposter syndrome came in, big time, like, "Who are you? "You're 27 years old, "who are you to write a self-help book? "You don't even read self-help books." And I wrote the book proposal the way I thought I should write it, which was I call my faux-PhD voice. It was so bad. It was so boring. Oh my God, that book proposal was so bad. Everybody turned it down. I think nine editors turned it down. But two editors sent me notes. And they said, this is a really good title. There's something here. And their notes sent me back to my first note, which was on a little piece of crinkled up notebook paper. When that title came with a few other ideas alongside. And I felt that, and I listened to that. What is that book really about? What do I want to say? What do I want to write? And I wrote that book, and it sold, and then it went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. I was an imposter by ignoring myself, by ignoring the impulse, by ignoring the idea that came and doing it the way I thought I should do it. By dismissing what you care about, what your point of view is, what enrages you, what opens your heart, what you find curious, how you wanna, how you want your characters to dress. That's how you become an imposter. Not because it's written anywhere out there what it means to be a writer. To be a writer is to take a stand, it's to have a point of view, and it's to own it. Sometimes in a very intimate, detail by detail way. This is my friend, Jessica Abel, she wrote a wonderful book called Out On A Wire. It's about narrative, audio storytelling. And she says "Pay attention to what you pay attention to." Isn't that brilliant? It's not just pay attention, everyone will tell you that as a writer, pay attention. Put down your smart phone. Let yourself be bored. Those are all good suggestions. But pay attention to what catches, what's that little idea that you just had that just went right here? Pay attention to that little thing that gave you, that piece of dialogue that that guy said to you, right? Pay attention to the things that light you up, that make you mad. Pay attention to what you care about. And blow on it. (blowing lightly) Like you would embers on a fire. Don't expect it to announce itself like, (imitating trumpets) pay attention to me. This is the idea, this is important. That's not how it works. It works by going, okay, wait I just got a little shiver right there in that conversation with my friend. I have no idea why, but I'm going to pay attention to that. That's how we defeat this completely made up story of being an imposter, and keep ourselves interested in our writing, and interested in growing. But the reason we don't do it, is 'cause it makes us vulnerable. If I tried to write the way that Anne Lamott writes, I don't have to actually show you who I am. If I try to write the way Tina Fey writes, I don't have to show you what I care about. So, it's vulnerable to do it, because it's, we're saying, "This is who I am, this is what I care about." And that's true in every genre. It doesn't have to be anything to do with personal storytelling. So it makes us vulnerable. It makes us exposed. And the reptile, reptilian part of our brain goes "Uh-uh, you're not safe, you're not gonna do that, "go imitate so-and-so, or just go watch some television, "let's just do that, okay?" So this isn't comfortable, and that's part of why we don't do it. It also takes time. We have to slow down, and we have to believe that our ideas, our stories, our words are worth it. So the question is not if what you want to write about is interesting of if you can do it. The question is have you owned it and worked on it? Have you owned what you care about, and have you worked on the craft to express it? I'm not suggesting as writers that you're like, "Well I'm just gonna write about "whatever I wanna write about. "And I'm gonna write about it any way you want, "you either like it or you don't like it." We have to stretch to connect with whoever we want to reach. So I'd like to take just a moment right now, about three minutes, to do a little imaginary process with you. If you're willing, there's no right way to do this, but I would love you to kind of just lean back and relax, and those of you at home, you can take a moment to get comfortable if you want. Maybe close your eyes if you'd like, put your writing stuff down if you want, or just whatever makes you comfortable. But I'd like you to imagine for a moment, that a piece of writing, that is completely and utterly yours, in your voice, you have owned what you pay attention to, what you care about so exquisitely, is out there in the world. It might be a blog post, it might be a book, it might be something that already exists, or something you're working on now, or something you can imagine. So just imagine that writing. It's so you, only you could have written it, is out there in the world right now. Take a moment, maybe with your eyes closed, to see that writing or feel it, and imagine it, let it be real for you, for a moment. And then imagine that out there in that big 'ole world, is one reader. And they're on the hunt for something. They have a need. Maybe they need to learn something, they need to be uplifted or illuminated, or maybe they need to feel less alone about something. Or they just need a good laugh. And this reader is out there searching for this thing. They're looking on the internet, they're in the bookstore, they're at the magazine counter. And they find your piece. They find what you wrote, owning your voice. And they begin to read. And they are exact, oh my gosh, they are like, this is exactly what I needed to know. This is exactly what I needed to hear. This is exactly the voice I needed. Take a breath and feel that connection. That what you wrote by owning what only you can say has connected with another human being. Nothing else would have done this. Nothing else would have scratched their itch, filled their need, but your voice. Your words, the way you put them together. Take a moment just to let that be real for you. Breathe it in to your belly and your heart, and imagine this connection. Yeah. Mmm. Beautiful. And, come back. And then I have a homework assignment that will bring this in and make it a little more real and tangible. And that's to write a letter to this reader you just met. Or even if it wasn't very real to you, if you're like "I didn't really hear or see anything." This will help it be more real. Here's the prompt. I'm writing to you today to tell you why I'm writing my story, my novel, my blog, whatever it is you're writing. And then, do a free write. Just keep your hand moving, hand writing, for about four minutes, and see what comes. Don't edit, don't censor. And then end that letter with the prompt, more than anything else, here's what I want you to know. This reader, who can only be helped by your words told in your way, your stories, your opinions, your ideas. What do you want them to know? And then maybe write for another few sentences, or another minute. So, being an imposter is about looking outside of ourselves for how we think we should write, or what we think we should write about. Paying attention to what you pay attention to, and owning that connection with the reader, is how we flip it around. I have to do it over and over again. I can easily lose my sense of my voice. Especially when I'm writing my blog posts.