Many years ago--probably close to 20 at the time of this writing--I was an aspiring writer who'd never actually finished a manuscript. I had never submitted a thing. Never entered a contest. Never heard of Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, or Novelists, Inc. I’d never even heard of half the publishers out there. I knew nothing about marketing, nothing about publishing, nothing about the production process of a novel. I just knew that I wanted to write.
I became friendly with a man named Joe Walker and his wife. Joe and Anita lived in my neighborhood and attended my church. Joe and I had gone to the same high school many years before, and Joe also happened to be a writer.
At the time, he’d written a number of articles for some magazines published by our church, and he’d ghost-written a few books. Joe and I talked often about writing, and soon our little circle expanded to include a third person. After a while, Joe, Karen, and I decided to meet twice a month to discuss writing. My first critique group. I felt like a writer, but I was terrified to show them my stuff.
Gathering all my courage, I wrote a story and carried it to our first meeting. Joe brought a wonderful piece about something that had happened to him during the week, and Karen brought a thoughtful, articulate, and beautifully written story that left me speechless and filled with envy. By comparison, my offering was short, clumsy, and juvenile-sounding.
At some point during one of our weeks, Joe complimented Karen on her beautiful writing style. I don’t remember everything he told her because it was just too painful for me and I blocked it all out. I only remember the part that speared me straight in the heart: when he said, “Sherry and I just write like...one of the guys.”
I was crushed! Devastated! I could scarcely breathe! I was mortified. And I was absolutely certain that I would never write another word as long as I lived. How could I dare? I wrote like one of the...guys!!!!
Completely distraught, I crawled home and pouted for a while. I tried everything I knew to put Joe's comment out of my head. Eventually, I started reading some of the old things I’d written. I remember in particular a passage from my journal written during a time when I was trying really hard to sound like a writer. I’d written it during a trip to Illinois, and in it I described the vast fields of corn and sorghum (I think) in lofty terms that included as many fancy words as I could come up with.
The fact was, they were fields of green corn stalks and squatty sorghum plants, and even I had to admit (in retrospect) that my lofty descriptions sounded utterly ridiculous. I think I even described the sorghum as majestic.
I read a few other passages—the ones that actually sounded good—and slowly began to realize that I wrote best when I wrote “like one of the guys.” The thing is, I don’t speak in lofty terms. I have a good vocabulary, I think, but the first words that come into my head when I’m speaking aren’t the longest and most difficult ones to pronounce. I talk like one of the guys, too, I guess.
After a long and painful journey through my own psyche, a lot of soul-searching, and a couple of two-by-fours upside the head, I began to accept that my voice was my voice, and that it was exactly what it needed to be in order to tell my stories and reach my audience. There are other people whose task it is to write to other people, and their voices will be different out of necessity. But there is nothing wrong with writing like one of the guys. For me, there’s something very right about it.
I learned to accept my voice and then to embrace it, and shortly after that I wrote No Place for Secrets, the book that went on to be my first sale and earn me a three-book contract in the bargain. The "blow" that Joe Walker landed that night so many years ago was actually one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me in my writing journey.
Joe has gone on to write a few books, including the charming Christmas on Mill Street. He also writes a syndicated column called ValueSpeak available in newspapers across the country. If you ever happen to see one, read it. Joe writes just like he speaks. And while you’re reading, say “hey!” to Joe from me :) I owe him a far greater debt than I’ll ever be able to repay.
photo credit: Sharp via photopin (license)