I’ve always been secretly embarrassed by what I write, but not in the way that most genre authors are.
I never had a high school English teacher or undergrad professor dress me down for writing fantasy instead of literary fiction. I’ve never left a critique at my grad school feeling like I was metaphorically bleeding. And yet, I sometimes feel that the themes and characters I tend to fixate on are unworthy.
As writers, we are quick to point out that we are not our stories. How else could we take criticism and improve our craft without weeping over every cut scene and character we have to kill for the sake of the plot? And while that generally is true, it is equally true that our stories do tend to reflect some corner of our internal landscape. It stings when someone attacks their cores.
My embarrassment was heightened by an experience that made me feel that someone had taken my very best things and dismantled them in the vein of Sid from Toy Story in order to fit their vision. It left me questioning the value of the story I’d originally wanted to tell with that set of characters, as the message I received was that I could write reasonably well–but I couldn’t write that story. That story had no value. Wendy Darling always goes with Peter Pan, not Captain Hook, silly girl.
So, I twisted it to make other people happy. Then I stopped telling it altogether.
When I first began at Stonecoast, my work was very different than it is now. Some of it from a place of truth (albeit a dark place), but I was often writing the books I felt other people would want to read. Marketable books, books that were about the Right Things instead of the things I valued or that stirred something in me. Why? Because I was afraid that the stories I really wanted to tell would be received with the same derisive air they had been before and/or that someone else I admired would tell me: “You can’t write that. That’s stupid. No one is ever going to like it.”
Then, on a whim, I turned in a fairy tale to my first Stonecoast mentor. I was probably blushing when I hit send; the story felt childish and too earnest. But I did it anyway–and my mentor loved it. She said that I had finally found what Marian Rosarum sounded like, not what Marian Rosarum was trying to sound like.
I considered this. I ended up watching Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of Whisper of the Heart (a film I think all writers can relate to) during the semester break and I realized, looking at the heroine’s journey to find her own voice, that my mentor was right. I stopped thinking so much about writing and just wrote from the heart. The end result of that course was my thesis, a story I’m very proud of.
Here are a few suggestions for finding your own voice.
Look at the books that mean the most to you and think about why. Is it the characters? The style? The world building? What is it about these stories that resonates with you so much?
Go back and read your early writing. Yes, even the Mary Sue magical girl epic you wrote in the 6th grade. I’m not suggesting that you try to salvage these works–most of them, frankly, won’t be salvageable. But you may discover an emotional truth to them, a point of origin for the themes and characters you find yourself returning to as an adult, and that can be greatly inspiring.
“These rambling tales were of course not very good, but they possessed a certain sparse magic that I often still marvel at,” says Sarah Taylor Gibson. “I think that we as authors are always trying to re-capture that old magic, whether we know it or not.” I happen to agree. It would be safe to say that my thesis would not exist if it hadn’t been for a novella I churned out when I was twelve.
Ask yourself what your obsessions are and run with them. Are you into fly fishing? Ancient Greek philosophy? Environmentalism? The First World War? You can build a story around anything, so long as you can generate the same passion in the reader that you feel about a subject.
Acknowledge that your writing might sound a little (or a lot) like the work of the authors you admire most in the beginning. That’s okay! When you discover your own voice, you’ll find that you no longer want or need to imitate another writer’s.
If someone tells you that your story is wrong, they are probably not the best critique partner for you. A story cannot be wrong. Your characters might be coming off as a little flat, your plot could be a hot mess, or you could be using problematic stereotypes you’ll need to reconsider. But if you genuinely want to tell a particular story, don’t let someone else dissuade you from doing it. Surround yourself with people who want to help you put the world inside your head onto paper in the best way possible.
What happened to the story I dropped all those years ago?
A month ago, I took a deep breath, and I picked it up again. I handled it delicately at first; I felt like I was holding a porcelain doll and one false move could reduce it to splinters once again. I’m still shy about approaching it, but I’m working on regaining my confidence.
I have 20k thus far. Let’s see where it goes, shall we?
Guest post contributed by Marian Rosarum. Marian is a fairy tale author and poet. She is currently working towards her MFA at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Popular Fiction Program. Check our her blog for more of her articles.
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