A Few Voice Lessons for Young Writers

(c) Copyright 2013, Margaret Langstaff, All Rights Reserved

There is a lot of Hoopdeedoodle (Elmore Leonard’s wonderful term) about the Secret Sacred Writing Mysteries only one click away and readily available to desperate earnest young writers. Publishers have clued into the fact that this is a small but rich book buying “market segment.” These books sell and sell but often fail to deliver on their promises. The reason is most writers of these books haven’t a handle, the merest whisper of a clue, about their ostensible subject. They are parroting something they heard, at the feet of someone else, themselves rigid with awe and respect, which seemed precious and profound, but they never really got it either.

So, anyway, young writers pour over these blanketed with blurbs books, and highlight every third sentence, write resolutions in their journals, fill the books’ margins with notes—and  eventually find themselves back to square one. And yet at some later date they realize they have in fact picked up a thing or two by exposure to these treatises and guides. They note a recurrence of certain terms and phrases. And after some water under the bridge  and even further thought, it becomes apparent to them that everyone they hold in esteem, the horde of MFA instructors, writing coaches, critics, lit gurus and the ilke (I just noticed that rhymes with bilk, I wonder why), as well as all of the books they’ve well-nigh vivisected about writing, seem to think Voice is of utmost importance. Voice?

So why are they still mystified about this, why don’t they understand whatever it is the term refers to, invokes, alludes to, yea bro, what is it about VOICE they just cannot get? When they try to pin the experts down to find out what the heck they are talking about, what an author’s voice is, for starters, they get replies to their questions in the impenetrable language of oracles.






Call me Ishmael

And get me a beer while you’re up

This kind of dodge, of course, keeps the meter running and you on the hook.


Bravely and recklessly, sacrificially, I will offer my own route out of this horrible state, a delirium of doubt and confusion, as a specimen worthy of study.

You can take it from there. I have.

After years and years of reading and study of Literature with a capital L from hell, growing progressively awestruck and stupefied and, as it turned out, paralyzed and sterile, I said, okay, it’s now or never. And I tried to write.

And I found it was a terrible strain, that I was unhappy, and not only with the chore writing was for me, but with what became the results of years of efforts to write something good, all of which everyone found easy to ignore.

Bottom-line: It all was awfully ordinary,

How tragic! What now? thought I. I had to do something, I had acquired certain skills, I realized, in spite of the dismal results qua results in my book, so what the hell could I do with them?

So I wrote other stuff, not creative, but I wrote book reviews, journalism, non-fiction and I wrote books for other people and re-wrote for publishers what they felt were unacceptable manuscripts that had been turned in by marketable hot shots with a following (“platform” to use their word) to whom they had written checks for ridiculously large advances against royalties of said “book.”

Many years passed. I learned more about writing and I learned more about Voice by trying to get into these hotshots’ heads, capture their thoughts, “ideas,” and individual voices in order to get a decent convincingly authentic publishable book for publishers. I was amazed when some of these books appeared on bestseller lists, no one any wiser about the writer who had actually written them.

I also, luck of the draw, I was fortunate to get assignments to interview many, many authors, some of whom I hugely admired. Problem was, for me, that nearly all of those greats or near-greats were, in the presence of the prying press, extremely guarded.

Cover of November 6, 2006.

Cover of November 6, 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then one day I flew to North Carolina on an assignment for Publishers Weekly magazine, the Time magazine of the book publishing trade/industry. The chief of the Reviews Dept., Sybil Steinberg, at the time—a wonderful, brilliant woman—had become intrigued with one Lawrence Naumoff, the current  golden boy of emergent New Southern Fiction (whatever that was, I thought, okay, I’m in anyway), and she wanted to do a feature on his newest novel, Taller Women.

For me it was a life changing experience. I’d never dreamed you could 1) act like that 2) live like that 3) talk like that and 4) write like that—and get away with it. I never dreamed you could so be yourself and your Self, alone and uncompromised, and attract, mesmerize and entertain an utterly fascinated appreciative audience.

He was wholly original, so odd, strange, so linguistically adept, witty, sly, so subversive to conventional literary numb nuts stuff, well educated, literate and literary, smart, intuitive, personally attractive—all this at once—and so much fun. And—hysterically funny—in spite of having suffered through all the requisite courses and degrees, professorial pontifications and wind-baggery—he escaped without a scrape, unscathed—and everyone who was anyone in the literary world at the time had their antennae up for his next move or burp on page.

This was a new kind of awe for me. It did not diminish; it encouraged; it lifted me up as a writer.

He picked me up at the Raleigh airport in the funniest worst rattle trap rusty truck and I stared in wonderment at the blacktop road flying by two feet away from my feet (no floor whatsoever in the thing on the passenger’s side) as we alternately sped, wandered, streaked, stuttered and toodled our way back to his home for lunch.

The interview I eventually wrote for PW that came out of what has to be one of the most entertaining, eye-opening experiences of my life, is anthologized in an annual Pushcart Press puts out, Writing for Your Life #2: Fifty Outstanding Writers Talk About the Art of Writing and the Job of Publishing. It was edited, of course, according to PW’s particular slant and angle and does not tell half the story. But it might be worth your while to read it. (I get no royalties from it that way, but the royalties I get from that single afternoon continue to accrue and enrich and confirm my life.)

After that encounter with a real original, an authentic voice, a voice in which I instantly recognized some of my own voice, my own tones and attitudes, I finally got it and I got a whole lot more. Somehow, when Lawrence spoke, I could see and hear myself seeing and saying almost the same things in nearly the same kind of way. It was very weird. He was kind of like me! He was a relative or something, literarily, to me. I could get into his skin somewhat, especially the teasing humorous irreverence, his tall tales that stood the tall tales of convention on their heads (i.e., Taller Women, his new book). It was as if I had found a long lost brother. I was all at once shocked, amazed, delighted, and affrighted. I did not know how to even to begin to process the shocks of recognition I experienced. But in net result it was exhilarating, liberating, inebriating. I stopped worrying, I didn’t care anymore, I realized that if he could do that, hell’s bells, so could I! What’s more, I came to grips with the truth that if I was going to be any genuine writer at all I would have to be myself first. Fearlessly.

Even so, easier said than done. I started writing fiction again and I wrote several books I thought people would want to read. This too was a strain, I did not enjoy it and I’m still not satisfied with them, although some have sold fairly well. Finally, one day I resolved to write books that I wanted to read in a style that was real, comfortable and amusing to me. For me, I found a good story or a book all started with  interesting characters in a certain situation and I wanted to see what they would do, what would happen next.

That’s when, after so many years, I found my own—for better or worse—voice. Writing then became a breeze, words came crowding, ideas burgeoned, my imagination had been sprung from its cage and it was off to the races.

I would have to say that when you find yourself in a similar state, you can be certain you have then found your voice as a writer. Never mind the Lo and Beholders you cow towed to in the past, never look back at the guides and instructors. Never look back.

Mind you, these are no tickets to fame, bestseller-dumb or fortune. One thing a writer with literary aspirations has to understand and accept is that the readership for even the greatest book ever will always be small in an author’s lifetime, and however glowing the critical notice one of your books gets, sales will quickly slump and you and the book that took you a year or many years to write will become yesterday’s news in a matter of months. Or less.

If you can deal with that, and the arduous process required to produce such books, then you will probably make it and be satisfied with such a life. Truth is, most can’t and I don’t think any less of them for it. I understand.


About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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5 Responses to A Few Voice Lessons for Young Writers

  1. Pingback: One Page at a Time | Writing = Passion

  2. J.B. Long says:

    What a fantastic post. Thank you for sharing.


  3. Aamir says:

    Virginia Woolf believed that the diary is a new art form that can bnrgius in touch with our deepest roots. Most women have kept a diary at some point in their lives. I find diaries fascinating because so much material can be incorporated in them. They are a gold mine of information. I have worked on a diary called Christina’s Diary for thirty years but kept it under lock and key like so many women do. Tonight I gathered the courage to submit it for publication. So often women think their stories are just about themselves when indeed what they relate is universal to all women surely those who live in the same historical time period and culture. .


  4. Lonie Fulgham says:

    Reblogged this on Reconsiderations and commented:
    Good read if you want to write.


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