The Heart and Craft of Writing


Lesson Info


And everyone's voice is different, and that's what's really wonderful. You know, there's that motto, or that phrase that's like, 'Everything's already been written.' You know, that kind of like cynical, you know, of course it has already been written, but it has not been written with your voice. Your voice, your literary voice, you can't really teach it. But you have it. So it's about figuring out what it is, strengthening it, paying attention to it. Your voice is a combination of your native talent, whatever native writing gift that you were born with, the language that you have access to, whether that is upper-crust sort of language spoken in your house, or street slang, or regional dialect. That is all going to be part of your voice. That bank of references that I've talked about, your personal experiences that have shaped you are part of your voice. And though you can't teach it, you can sort of unteach yourself things that have kind of gotten on your voice. There's this wonderful ...

writer, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and she came and did a reading at an event I was doing, and she has a wonderful voice. Her book, Madeleine is Sleeping, won, I believe, the National Book Award, and she was talking about how in college, she had a teacher, she was reading one of her piece out loud and he said, 'Just stop it, I just can't stand the voice.' He was so rude about it to her, and it shut her down. And she, you know, she had her repercussion of that, but thankfully stuck with her voice and won the National Book Award. So I think that things that you can do in order to kind of grow your voice is reading... Sometimes I think you can find your voice a little bit by reading those writers that your literary lineage, like I was talking about. If something really sings to you, it's almost like a tone, like you're harmonizing, you know, tone matching tone, sometimes that can be a little bit of a tip-off. I really feel like unlearning a lot of... If you have any idea of what your writing should sound like, that's probably a problem. You really don't want to feel like your writing should hit some sort of mark that is, I don't know, based on what you think sells, or what you think a good writer sounds like. I mean, it's one thing if you're reading Margaret Atwood and you're like, 'This is what a good writer sounds like.' But it's another thing if you're like, 'I think of writers as this thing over here, 'and that their words sound like this, 'and it's not me with my yeahs and ums and likes 'and stuff like that.' I think that a really good practice is writing the way that you talk. Try to do that for a little bit. It might not be a hundred percent your voice, but I bet you it's going to be pushing you in that direction. Use slang. Put likes and ums in your writing, you can take them out when you're editing. But, something to kind of get at what your native voice is. If you also aren't sure what your voice is like, you can also try imitating other writers, which might be... Sounds like what I just told you not to do, but more in a way to kind of figure out like, 'Okay, what feels right? 'What feels inspiring?' You want to feel inspired while you're writing, because that's what's gonna keep you writing, is that feeling of flow and that feeling of 'Yes, I know how to do this, 'this feels like it's working to me.' I know we all hit those huge walls where it doesn't feel like that, but if it feels like that when you're starting, or most of the time it feels like that, then you probably have a handle on your voice. And voice is really important, it can carry you through any kind of story. I once had somebody give me a really huge compliment. She read my book, Valencia, and asked me what I was working on. And at the time I was toying with like a sci-fi book, which I was like, 'I might write a sci-fi book,' and she was like, 'Oh, I would read anything that you write 'because I really like your voice.' And I was like 'Oh, that's really cool. 'So I just can take this voice, 'and I can kind of bring it to any type of story.' And it'll be altered, the story will impact your voice a little bit. When I wrote my book, my young adult fantasy mermaid books, suddenly I was writing in this more like, I was telling a fairytale to a child kind of voice, and it was interesting to feel it change like that, but it felt very natural and organic so I allowed it to. So your voice, different projects might alter your voice a little bit. But in general, you want to just feel like, 'This is me.' You know, like 'This is how I talk, 'this is how I express myself.' And those unique voices are what makes any kind of story feel new again, even if it is like, 'I've read a mystery, I've read a love story.' It's like, well you haven't read it told like this. In this place, in Orlando, Florida. I have some voices that I wanted to share that I really love. Some writers who I feel like have very, very unique ways of expressing their stories. Laurie Weeks wrote this great book called Zippermouth, which is totally smart and insane. There's this little piece, "I was reading Roland Barthes, hyped-up on coffee "and ripped force. "A weightlifter's potion of Ephedra "and other herbal crystal meths, "thinking of a girl sliding onto me. "A girl like Jane, shot through with distance and chill. "The stereo played my new Ambient Love Grooves CD, "while images of an enormous tap-dancing cigarette "pranced in my head. "Roland said something like, "'Photography, a new form of hallucination,' "which got me worked up." What is happening? Only Laurie Weeks could write that. That's something about voice. It's like only that person could write that. Sometimes I feel utter despair that I'm not a different writer, or a better writer. I have these ideas in my head for books all the time, and I just know that I just, it's like I'm not a painter but I can see sometimes paintings in my head, but I can't make it happen. That happens with writing too. And that's the beauty and the limitation of voice. It's like your voice, you can only tell the stories that you can tell, right? And your voice is your, is like the means of getting to that story. So I love this so much. I couldn't write that. I can't read Roland Barthes, I just can't do it. But she read it for us, so that's nice. This is Raquel Gutierrez, this is actually a poem from her book, Breaking Up With Los Angeles: "Partner with loss, embrace change, "resist nostalgia, repeat. "The cat gets caught in barbed wire, touch and go. "Addressed prayers, where? "Aging punk-house parties where mixtape champions "stand against each wall, "vexed in the social oceanographies. "Where looking everyone in the eye is moot. "The house is freezing and we huddle closer. "Forty is on the horizon. "Are we still implacable? "We hate the government and find common accord "against, and with the righteous, "and the most revolutionary thing we can do "is quit Facebook or reject marriage, fear each other, "one after another. "One after each other's honest opinion, "and not our hacked electronic correspondence accounts "of hackneyed truth. "Here is the truth. "Need for password guesses: vain. "My narcissism is better than your narcissism. "Can I bum a smoke?" I mean like yeah, right? Thanks Raquel. Thanks for writing that. Thanks for being at that party and conjuring all of that. You all could have been at that party too, and you woulda had a different poem. And that's the beauty of voices. I love that, I love how she brought... I just can really feel that place. Even though it's a poem, right? It's not a fictional piece, or even a memoir piece where she's really telling us what the light in the room looked like, or what was on the table. So it's a little bit different. But a word on poetry. I know of a lot of writers who, before they start working on their own work will read some poems to sort of get them in this space of thinking about language in a different way. And I was inspired by that, and so I started doing it too. And it's cool. I don't know how you all work. You probably all have your own processes, and you're probably very superstitious about them, because all writers are. But I really like to read something before I get started, like from that shelf or writers that make me wanna go, and sometimes poetry is really great. I really recommend shaking up your senses a little bit with that before you start writing. It definitely creates a sort of different mental space before you get going. I have one more piece. Myriam Gurba is a writer with a really strong, really unique voice. Very comic, and sometimes shocking, although I picked a tamer piece. But you'll have to go seek out her more risque pieces. "My sister and I were at the wind-up toy store on Melrose, "and I thought to myself wow, "that guy really looks like Kevin Bacon. "Then I realized the guy standing a few feet away from me "was Kevin Bacon, except in real life, "Kevin Bacon looks like an etherealer version of himself, "like those seventies-era paintings of white Jesus "where he looks like he surfs." Don't you just wanna stay in that store with her? Like, what else is she gonna say? She has this great voice. It's very plain-spoken, but it's filled with these little gems of her own observations.

Class Description

If you’ve embarked on the process of writing your first book, there’s a good chance that you’re struggling a bit. Books are big, unwieldy creatures, and even the bravest of among us can feel overwhelmed by the thought of filling all those hundreds of blank pages with intelligent, effervescent words.

Award-winning author, editor and teacher Michelle Tea offers this class to help you believe in your abilities as a writer, stick to your goal and push through that first draft. She’ll outline some of the key tricks to writing a great book and inspire you to produce the vibrant, sparkling and unique work that’s inside your head and waiting to come out.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Be specific and avoid vagueness.
  • Bring your five senses to your writing by including sound, light, scent, texture and taste in every scene.
  • Find your pacing: write slow, write strong.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Build your unique voice and create a shelf of voices you wish your voice to be in conversation with.
  • Keep your editing brain away from your creative brain.



What a wonderful class! Michelle is knowledgeable, authentic, generous and open-hearted with her experience and advice. She offers a genuine sense of validation and practical tips for new writers. I especially liked her thoughts on how to carve out a space for your writing.