How I Find My Writer's Voice
I am sitting on the floor. My hands are typing; my laptop is placed on a small wooden table. On my left: a blue gym bag from this morning outdoor yoga class, a red portable speaker playing ambient music. On my right: two rolled up yoga mats, 1 floor lamp made of coir emitting warm light, and my ipad with “If You Want to Write” opened, Brenda Ueland. I read Brenda Ueland to have the good honest creative voice coming up my throat. Ueland and her works are fine reminder of what real writing is. Writing is an alone business, reading other great writer helps, reading other great writers write about writing helps even more. This article is about writing. A piece of reflection to celebrate my first year of blogging. This article is fragmented I write it in a fragmented state of mind: in the midst of my studio renovation, my art project up and coming, and my grandfather's sickness. I hope you accept it as I've learnt to accept it. Self-acceptance is vital in art-making.
Discover the self
1 year, more than 130 articles, 120,000 words (actually many more because I filled in 6 A4 notebooks but it’s hard to count over there). This last year and all those articles have brought me, unexpectedly, many readers from all around the world. I remember one morning finding in my inbox an email from Joan in Tanzania:
Following your blog has helped me start a journey of pure self-discovery and understanding without been worried or what will turn out. It has helped me start embracing the true me am learning & discovering in the process without being very judgmental to myself especially on thinking what others would think about anything I heart-fully think is right.
I mention Joan’s email because this is exactly why I began to write, and most probably will be the reason I continue to write for the rest of my life: discover the self, at the same time, reinvent the self. I was happy that as I discover myself through my writing, the readers discover themselves too.
The title of this article is “How I Find My Writer’s Voice” This “writer’s voice” is the result of that self-discovery. Your writer’s voice is your own true voice really. There is no such thing as a perfect writer’s voice and certainly not everybody should sound like Shakespeare, in fact nobody else should, otherwise life would be a great tragedy. Not because Shakespeare isn’t a genius, but because we will miss out billions of different genius voices.
Because I have a voice
I was lucky to have read Austin Kleon during those days in Bonn when I first had this “faint and crazy” idea of writing something out of pure desire.
“The only way to find your voice is to use it.” This sentence left a strong impression in me. I couldn’t sit there and theorize or philosophize or imagine my “voice”. (Still I tried, and it didn’t help.) Gotta write, there’s no other way.
Speaking of voice, I cannot forget this one scene in the King’s Speech. For me it sums up the entire movie. When the stammering and worried monarch “Bertie”, later become King George VI, caught his speech therapist Longue sitting on the coronation throne.
Get up! Y-you can't sit there! GET UP!
Why not? It's a chair.
T-that... that is not "a chair", that is Saint Edward's chair.
People have carved their names on it.
It's held in place by a large rock.
Th-that is the S-stone of Scone you are t-trivializing...
I don't care how many royal arseholes have sat in this chair.
L-listen to me... listen to me!
Listen to you? By what right?
By divine right, if you must. I am your king!
No, you're not. You just told me you didn't want it. Why should I waste my time listening to you?
Because I have a right to be heard! I have a voice!
That sentence echoed in my head for days. And it echoes again now that I think about it.
We create, we express - through photos, and drawing, and singing, and dancing, and writing, through every single step we take, and the way we talk, breathe, brush teeth. We express because we have a voice. This is our birthright: each of us, you and I, and he, and she, regardless of our circumstances, we human, born original, unique, with a voice worth listening to.
I remember this one afternoon in Singapore when I was in the subway reading Ray Bradbury’s “Zen in the Art of Writing” and was stunned by his thoughts on the uniqueness of the human experiences each of us go through in our lives. It rings true to my heart one million times.
What is most unique about us? Really, it is the set of our human experiences. We all have this Life. But no man experience the same moment in the same way; no man experience Life in the same order. Some know of first kiss earlier than the other. Some saw the death of a loved one, some receive it on the phone while being continent away. Some taste betrayal, some taste heartbreak. Some rest his back in a 5-stars hotel, some live in slum, some sleep facing up a sky of one thousand stars…
All of those things we see and hear and taste and touch. They don’t just go away. They come inside us. And if we dare to use them as our materials, we are speaking and writing with our own voice.
Carbon box and elephant
Yesterday in the writing workshop I said there are two types of expressions: carbon box expression and authentic expression. Carbon box expression is us writing in Literature exam for university entrance, feeling our literature teacher breathing at our neck; it is nervously sipping tea in a room full of family elders who are also drinking tea, even though we hate tea. Authentic expression is us 5-year-old walking in supermarket with unmatched socks, swaying our hips like Michael Jackson to supermarket music, making rude noises (until our mother says: “Don’t do that!” Boom, we back to the carbon box.) You get it.
Carbon box expression is something borrowed. As a child, we were punished every time we dared to be ourselves. Slowly we adopt this fake expression because it is safe.
There is a baby elephant in a circus. He has one of his legs tied to a small pole by the trainer. Whenever he tries to walk away from the pole, the knot tightens and he feels the pain. Days after days, the elephant remembers the pain and stops trying. Years later, the baby elephant has grown up to a magnificent, beautiful creature. Now the pole and the rope are no longer strong enough to hold him. He can walk away at any moment. But the beautiful elephant still spends his life next to that pole, a rope tied to his big leg. Because he still believes he cannot break free.
We all have in us this rope and pole. The good news is: freedom is just a thought away. No pole or rope can hold us, once we’ve chosen to be free.
Some other helpful tips
I face the strongest resistance when it comes to writing. After one year and it’s not getting any easier. Perhaps I can express myself a little more genuinely. Perhaps I can get into my flow a little faster. But resistance still blows at my chin with its tight iron fist. Full blow. Below are somethings that help ease myself into writing. I hope they help you too.
Dancing, black milk tea, music, and writing space
The skin on my neck is sticky because of some impromptu yoga dance I just did right before writing this passage. Some warming-up of creative muscles, quite literally. The body and mind are connected. The mind muscles are rather hard to warm up because we don’t see them. But the body muscles are easier to handle. So I love to move around, roll my neck and shoulders, lift my arms up and down as a weepy willow branch moving in the breeze, move my fingers so as to inject energy in each joints – good for the typing.
Besides, this is what I need to get my writing going: black tea with fresh milk (used to be coffee but I changed it for the sake of my liver – quite a personal project there), some cubes of dark chocolate, 85% up, when the day gets gloomy. Some instrumental song is playing in the background, something which does not put me to sleep, and something does not become too intrusive. Recently I love the track Twenty Two Fourteen of The Album Leaf. Away to distract my chattering ego so I can fall deeper into the river of authentic thoughts.
I like to write in my room. Going outside to write in a nice café seems like a romantic idea, but that does not work for me. Too many distraction and too many factor that I cannot control – the baby is crying in the right table, in the left a man lid his cigarette, suddenly I found out I forget the laptop charger, chocolate is too good here, end up ordering 3 and too high to write. Stuff like that.
Find your own “Dancing, black tea, music, and writing space”. Something helps to set you in creative motion.
First, you expect very little of yourself. Expectation creates fear. And fear isn’t good for your artistic child. Sit down and tell yourself I am going to write a short bad article. I am going to write as recklessly as possible. I am going to write as if nobody is going to read it. I am going to write as if I’ve just eaten 3 bars of chocolate after being drunk and high on drug (except don’t take those stuff, they are no good for you in the long term. Chocolate can be the exception).
Stop vs Quit
There are plenty of afternoon when I stood up from my writing desk, momentarily giving up, steaming with frustration. The writing did not take off, the writing did not take off. I could not disappear in the writing. I was there in the way, heavy and unmovable like an overweight sea turtle. Lied down on my bed, sometimes I cried, sometimes I thought of doing something a little more normal instead of this writer’s life. But once you tasted the ecstasy of art-making, stopping is dangerous.
When I don’t write – or better put: don’t allow myself to write - a strange phenomenon happens, I begin to overeat. Over 2 weeks of no writing, I gained 3 kilos. The soul was hungry; but the more almond butter and bread I ate the worse I felt. Out of sheer need to control my eating disorder, I brought myself back to the page. After few hours of pouring myself onto it, I feel instantly better. I guess I literally lose weight: psychological weight and physical weight.
So I learned something important: the difference between Stop and Quit. I may stop for a day, for a week, for a month. I may stop after this very punctuation. But I never quit writing. I face the blank page, the laptop screen. Pick up the pen, or stroke the keyboard. Here I go again.
Give love to resistance
I've read more than 10 writers-on-writing books and found out that all writers face resistance. So resistance happens to everyone. The more important the work is to your soul, the stronger the resistance.
Don’t fight your resistance. Don’t condemn your state of resistance, just be aware of it and look at it with curiosity like you are lying on the grass one summer afternoon looking at the cloud. Look at this resistance with curiosity and perhaps a little amusement. Understand that it is not laziness, it is fear. From that understanding, you will have self-compassion. You are afraid. Afraid of what? Of judgment, of a crude revelation that you are not as good as you thought you are. Ah ha! That self-judgment again.
Don’t show up for the art. Show up for the art-making. Don’t show up for the prospect of a shiny article with 1000 Facebook shares. Show up for the writing. Show up because writing is the breath of the soul. And nothing is more dangerous than a soul that suffocates.
Keep the channel open
Give all of you to the process, the result is not your problem. Something that helps me so much is this passage from legendary dancer, choreographer Martha Graham. I printed it out, and taped it on the big board, right next to my writing desk so I see it every day.
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening, that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not hear it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable it is nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly, and directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even need to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivates you. Keep the channel open
No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
So you see, this "divine dissatisfaction", this "blessed unrest", this "more alive then the others" are what we're here for. And the are one thousand times more precious than the eyeballs, the fan mails, the blog traffic, the money, the whatever trivial that will come by itself AFTER you have been true to yourself, after you have done your work.
Be a silkworm, munching on all of life, finger-licking as if silkworm had fingers. And once the experiences have turned and raked, well digested in your belly, create something beautiful.
Lastly, I want to leave you with a short simple advice that I say to myself often. This is from Natalie Goldberg, she tells us to… “Shut Up and Write”
photo credit: flickr - Creative Common