CHOOSING THE RIGHT WORD

Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

I tuned into a webinar in which the author used Twain’s almost right v. right word as a jumping-off point for his presentation. It inspired me to think about how I might approach this topic with writers (and with myself).

Looking at the difference between the almost right word and the right word is like looking at a finger pointing to the moon and looking directly at the moon yourself. Or looking at Michelangelo’s Adam reach out to the hand of God and reaching out to God’s hand yourself. It’s the difference between observing somebody else’s experience and having the experience yourself.

The joy of the right word appearing on the page is the direct experience of the awe and wonder of the moon’s energy or of God’s mystery. It is the experience of being one with your characters and their worlds.

Choosing the right word is a very large part of what makes a writer’s voice unique. But what exactly does that mean: choosing the right word?

In my experience, right words come from being directly in touch with one’s deepest resource–one’s voice–which holds within it the entire content of one’s heart and soul and mind. Our voice is the reason we write.

Nothing feels more right to a writer than writing from a place of wonder and awe. It is, quite simply, the experience of self and word as one, an unbroken trust sweeping us into the unknown.

In that unknown is every right word we will ever need for every piece of work we will ever write. All of your writing may use many of the same words–it will use many of the same words. But what will make those same words so different in every work is YOU. Your Voice. Your Mind. Your Heart. Your Soul.

I wish you the joys of Spring and inspired writing (even on days when the right word is nowhere to be found!).

Shelley

THE ECSTASY OF VOICE

I am so happy I can barely focus on my own work. A writer I have known for eight years but never met or talked with in person finally showed me her voice. And what a voice!

I wish I could reproduce her work here but I don’t have her permission to and so I will try instead to describe why I feel like the cow that jumped over the moon (a ridiculous nursery rhyme, if ever there was, but oh so delightful in every way). Or perhaps not like the cow but ecstatic that something of wonder has occurred.

This writer and I, we’ve been talking back and forth about writing and voice for the past week or two. She couldn’t figure out how to give agents what they’re looking for as they continue to reject her manuscripts. She’s been writing for thirty-five years. At my request she sent me the first two pages of a manuscript that has been rejected. It was easy to see why: she was nowhere to be found. She was not present in her words–her voice was entirely absent. I told her (reluctantly), if I were an agent, I wouldn’t be able sell these pages as written to a traditional or even well-established independent publisher, because there was nothing in the writing yet to tell me who she is and why it would be important to offer her work to the world at large.

Voice is not a marketing gimmick that agents and publishers are suddenly looking for in a writer who hasn’t been published. The writer’s voice has always been central to great writing and loyal readership.

I suggested an exercise I’ve been practicing for myself and plan to bring to one of my upcoming webinars. I directed it towards her manuscript with my usual disclaimer, “If unhelpful ignore any and all.”

What came back in an email reply earlier today simply blew my mind. If I were able to share her two pages and also the short passage she wrote in her email–triggered by opening a box of spices that transported her back to a faraway country where she had lived until she came to America at the age of thirteen (so this writing was entirely unconnected to her manuscript story)–you would understand why her latest writing struck with the force of a gale wind.

It would be impossible to peg these two very different pieces of writing as having come from the same writer, and yet they did. So what does that say about how we write, and why?

In the one–her ms two pages–craft was there but not life. In the other was nothing but Life, brimful, in every sentence, every image, every word. I could taste and smell and see and feel its riotous colours, its cacophony of sounds and memories jostling one another yet coming together to make a seamless experience that carried me into her world.

Smells and sounds and images enter our senses so fast we’re often unaware in that moment that we’ve been forever transformed. That through our voice we transform our readers. We penetrate their senses.

I am transformed. I can never forget that paragraph of life in her email, filled with the rhythms and cadences that belong solely to her. Her voice, her body memory, her mind. Hers, and hers alone.

This is the power of voice. The rest, as I told her in my reply (meaning the stories she’s concocted so faraway from the truth of who she is), is piffle. Abandon them all at the Gate of Hades and write about Life.

She knows who she is. I am grateful we had a series of conversations that led to the revelation of Her.

GIVE RISE TO WONDER

a Workshop for Writers

“With fiction there’s no reason why everything you write shouldn’t be amazing. Nobody’s stopping you from making up better stuff.” – Wells Tower

In spite of all the iffy weather SPRING is here! In Manhattan some brave trees have begun to bloom while others are still on tenterhooks…wondering, is the sun really going to shine or should they wait a little longer. Either way, Spring is in the air. It’s a time of renewal and rebirth, of clearing away the winter cobwebs and embarking on the new.

Three weeks ago I promised a workshop inspired by Wells Tower’s words: “With fiction there’s no reason why everything you write shouldn’t be amazing. Nobody’s stopping you from making up better stuff.”

I came up with the idea to offer a short workshop for writers who feel as I do that his words are an oasis in a desert of rules (mostly made up by people who will never meet us). When I first read them nine years ago they were a jolt and inspiration rolled into one. They remain that today, reminding me whenever I return to them why I write.

Please join me in a three-hour webinar workshop on Saturday 5th May from 12.00-3.00pm east coast time/9.00am-12.00pm west coast time*

together we’ll discover

How everything we write can be amazing if we stay true to our voice and become our own guide.

When we let go of all the do’s and don’ts that so often prescribe our writing, we will experience how fathomless our imagination actually is.

We can make up better stuff. Nobody’s stopping us! Seriously. Nobody.
(This is the best-kept secret of the breakout novel.)

When: Saturday 5 May 2018
Where: Online – a Webinar Workshop.
Cost: $25**


*Check your timezone here: World Clock
** Full refund within seven days of the workshop if it turns out not to have been right for you. 

IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT…

1. Writing is work, good writing is difficult. Moments of easy writing are moments of Grace. Feel blessed when they happen but don’t gauge how well or badly your writing is going by them. The experience of Grace fades but the work still remains.

2. Never judge your writing by saying, “This is good writing, this is bad writing.” Run as far and fast as you can from anyone who speaks of your writing this way. It’s not that bad writing doesn’t exist, it does. There’s far more bad writing in the world than good. But for the sake of your sanity, and the truth of your voice, train yourself to gauge your writing by a different measure.

Learn to know in your bones when your writing is right for whatever you’re working on and when it is not. In the course of your career you will write millions of words. Most will never see the light of day. But those discarded words can lead to writing well. More important, they will reveal who you choose to be as much as who you decide you are not.

3. Your subconscious is your best friend. It is the conduit through which you share the content of your heart and mind and soul with the world at large.

4. Learn to recognise the felt sense of when you are one with your subconscious, when words come to the surface of your mind without effort, from a place of not knowing, and like your breath appear in a flow without beginning or end. This sense of flow carries the next word, and the next, and the next, all just beyond the grasp of our conscious mind until they arrive on the page. This unknown place is the unconditional trust that is Grace.

Grace cannot be willed. It appears unexpectedly, gives clarity and the courage to keep writing in spite of all obstacles real and perceived, then leaves.

5. Craft is paramount. Rules are not. Learn as much craft as possible from the best: the classical canon as well from books by the modern masters (Margaret Atwood, Alice Munroe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Susanna Clarke, Mark Helprin come to mind as I write. You’ll remember the writers you aspire to be–their works are your true mentors).

6. Read widely. Read great writers, not poor ones. Read nonfiction as well as fiction. If you write nonfiction, read fiction as well as nonfiction.

7. Every story should have a distinct, narrative voice which fits that particular story. But the narrative voice is not your voice. The narrative voice is related to genre and style. Your voice is who you are: unique, full of contradictions, full of life. It is your voice that creates a following and draws readers in. The narrative voice is what keeps readers turning the page. (See Stephen King’s and Meg Rosoff’s articles below on the writer’s voice,)

8. Reread your favourite book, then try to make your current work better than this book. Do not imitate the writer or the story or the structure or anything else derivative. Simply use your story to go beyond what your favourite book achieved. You may not succeed but your writing will develop in ways you have not yet imagined.

9. Articulate to yourself why you admire certain people who have produced great things in the world and why what they’ve done or are doing inspires you. Why do they make you think more deeply about things you might not otherwise have thought about had you not encountered their work? Think about the ways in which they brought or bring their work to fruition. Figure out why you are drawn to their work, then use what you’ve discovered to create your own.

10. It is not an absolute that if you love an artist like David Lynch it therefore follows you will not be able to write a novel that adheres to the three-act structure (four acts if you read Larry Brooks or Alexandra Sokoloff). But it is possible that if you love the work of people who refuse to squeeze their creativity into other people’s boxes, you may love to write in a way that lies beyond the scope of commercial fiction’s current love affair with the three-act structure.

If you find yourself struggling to fit your vision into a structure borrowed from drama—see Gustav Freytag’s Pyramid (adapted by Blake Snyder for screenwriters in Save the Cat) or borrowed from Aristotle’s Poetics (see Cheryl Klein)—make peace with yourself. It may be your subconscious saying, “This type of structure is not your path.” Or you may find your work fits well into Freytag’s Pyramid or Aristotle’s Poetics, after the fact. You may be a writer who works from the inside out instead of from the outside in.

11. Honour your process. Lots of people will say this to you during the course of your writing life. Some will mean it others will use it as code for: honour your process but follow mine. The most important thing is to begin to know how you work. It’s up to you to honour yourself.

12. Find your own path. It may not look commercially viable at the beginning but it may lead to writing a breakout novel (which is what all commercial fiction writers hope to achieve). At the very least it may lead to a small but devoted group of readers inspired by a writer who remains true to his or her creative vision. It’s what J.K. Rowling did, and we all know what happened for her.

13. Find a copy of Being in the World and watch it. It may illuminate the significance of why you write:

Being in the World raises the question of whether we have forgotten what it means to be truly human in today’s technological age, and proceeds to answer this question by taking a journey around the world to meet a whole host of remarkable individuals, including Manuel Molina, the legendary poet and flamenco master; Leah Chase, affectionately known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine; and Hiroshi Sakaguchi, a master carpenter from Japan. By showing how these modern day masters approach life from within their chosen fields, Ruspoli’s film celebrates the ability of human beings to find meaning in the world through the mastery of physical, intellectual, and creative skills.

14. If you don’t know grammar, punctuation and syntax learn them well. Then simply write, in exactly the same way that if you know how to drive you simply get into the vehicle and drive. You no longer think about it.

Use grammar to clarify your text and your voice. You may have to fight with your editor on where you place your commas (see Toni Morrison and commas below), but if your voice is truly on the page your grammar choices will follow your voice, not the other way around. Your choices reveal how you hear your writing, your rhythms and cadences. They reveal who you are, to yourself and to your readers.

If you can’t spell invest in a dictionary. If you’re dyslexic find a good friend and/or sympathetic editor who will correct your misspelled words without judgement.

If you can spell but don’t own a dictionary invest in one. You can never know too many words. Words are your currency: you can never be too rich. Also invest in a good thesaurus. Use it to stir your imagination when you find the same words coming at you again and again.

15. If you want to understand how to work with misdirection—using what is said or unsaid, using a single phrase or word, to misdirect the reader—read Jane Austen’s Emma several times. For the price of her book, you will have a master class in how to write misdirection for the rest of your writing life. Each time you read it you will realise that Austen is the mistress of misdirection. But it is only on second and subsequent readings that we start to see how firmly she controls the story through the art of misdirection at almost every turn.

Austen is also adept at revealing the interior journey of the character (see more on the character’s interior journey in Donald Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction below).

16. Study the classical canon to deepen your understanding of how the novel has evolved. You will start to understand that themes and structures which appear to be contemporary have their roots in Cervantes, Fielding, Defoe, Austen, George Eliot, et al, and that without this lineage the novel might never have been born.

17. More important than any of the above, write because you want to, because you need to, and because the act of arranging words on a page in a meaningful way is essential to being who you are.

There probably is a correlation between being very skillful at something, being a master of something, and finding things that are deeply significant, deeply meaningful, and essential to being who you are. — Mark Wrathall, Being in the World

A selection of books and articles to read:

Books
Rainer Maria Rilke – Letters to a Young Poet
Toni Morrison – The Dancing Mind
Ursula K. Le Guin – Steering the Craft
Donald Maass – Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level
Donald Maass – The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface
Cheryl Klein – Second Sight: An Editor’s talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults
Stephen Greenblatt – The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Keith Birmingham – The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses
Jane Austen – Emma

Articles
Dean Koontz – On Self-Doubt, Story and Abuse
Stephen King – On the difference between style and voice, on opening lines, and more
Meg Rosoff – On finding your voice
Shelley Souza – Your Voice Is Never Wrong.
Robert Gottlieb –Toni Morrison and commas
Steven Pressfield – Writing Wednesdays
Other links to writers and playwrights – on writing

Ursula K. Le Guin on Book View Cafe – An Experiment
27 July 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story
27 July 2015 – Navigation Q1: How do you make something good?
10 August 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story – Session 1
24 August 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story : Session 1, Continued
7 September 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story: Session 1, Part 3
21 September 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story: Session 1, Part 4
5 October 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story: Session 1, Part 5
12 October 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story: What Do You Think About Online Critiques?
15 February 2016 – Navigating the Ocean of Story (2)
29 February 2016 – Navigating the Ocean of Story (2)
21 March 2016 – Navigating the Ocean of Story (2)

Visit museums. Spend time with friends. Live life. Write.

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THIS IS WHO I AM

A few days after my webinar Reawaken Your Voice on the 2nd April, Melissa Koosmann, who had signed up to join me, wrote in the comments under the replay, “I missed this webinar on the day of the event (I was giving birth to a baby, actually).”

Melissa and I talked on Wednesday 19th April and sometimes the baby joined in, but not yet in English. So I edited out most of his comments although you can still occasionally hear him.

Melissa’s commitment to be part of the webinar by listening to the replay so soon after her baby’s birth speaks volumes about her desire to keep writing, even with big demands on her time right now.

I hope she will inspire you as much as she has inspired me.

I wish you all Spring’s joy.

In Conversation with Melissa Koosmann, 19 April 2017
Part 1 That Spark
Part 2 The True Answer
Part 3 A Crystal Ball
Part 4 To Write From Your Voice
Part 5 True to Yourself
Part 6 Crossing the Line
Part 7 A Ray of Light
Part 8 The 3-Act Novel
Part 9 Showing Your Work
Part 10 What I Believe In
Part 11 The Path for Me
Part 12 An Act of Creation
Part 13 The Words I Write
Part 14 Everything

 

© 2017 A WRITERS VOICE INC

Webinar Recording Sunday 2nd April 2017

Dear Writers,

Thank you to everyone who joined me on the webinar. Please let me know in the comment box below if the session was helpful, and if you have further questions.

If you signed up and didn’t attend, I would love to hear from you after you’ve listened to the session; especially if you would like me to try and respond to the answer you sent me on what you hoped to get out of the webinar. (The answer will have to give me enough information about what you’re looking for, in order for me to respond in a way that might be helpful.)

If you are new to A Writer’s Voice and have questions or comments about the conversations on the webinar, or if you have questions about your own work, write to me in the comments, and I will do my best to answer.

Shelley

Links to Ray Bradury, J.K. Rowling and Stephen King mentioned in the webinar:

An Evening with Ray Bradbury
J.K. Rowling in Conversation with Steve Kloves
Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences

 

© 2017 A WRITERS VOICE INC

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REAWAKEN YOUR VOICE

Dear Writer,

I recently taught a class on SavvyAuthors. I called it Voice on the Page. The goal of my five-week class, which took place through a live webinar each week, was to get the writers who joined me to really write the story they absolutely believe in. The story that comes from their voice, not from craft. Craft is important and necessary. But with so many classes on craft these days, overuse has made it the vine that kills the tree. Your voice is the tree, and it is unique.

From my writers I learned that they longed to be inspired by their voices again. They taught me that writers are looking for validation of their voice, without throwing out the necessity of craft.  Does this sound like you?

— Were you once thrilled to write your story but no longer feel connected to your voice?

— Do you feel faraway from the original vision you had for your story, and why you wanted to write it?

— Are you exhausted from the effort of trying to nail every craft point and push every plot twist to make your work fit the market?

If these, and more that I learned from the strong writers who studied with me on SavvyAuthors, ring true to you; if want to find joy in your writing, and trust your voice again:

Join me on a FREE webinar on SUNDAY 2 APRIL 2017 at 1.00PM Eastern Daylight Time.

The webinar will last 30-45 minutes, depending on how many people join. I invite you to

REAWAKEN TO YOUR VOICE

To join me on the webinar on April 2,  fill out the contact form HERE  and your place will be confirmed. (If you can’t attend you’ll receive a copy of the recording.)

A constant focus on craft will make your work feel as if your voice is no longer present in your writing, and perhaps it is not. But it is not lost. It is still with you. And Spring is the perfect time to bring your voice back to life again.

WHAT PARTICIPANTS SAID ABOUT VOICE ON THE PAGE

Brilliant analysis. Thank you so much. I admit I have gotten away from my origins, wordsmithing, in favor of trying to hit all the targets we are told to nail this way or that. It’s exhausting. I feel like I can never just sit down and craft. There are always a billion balls to juggle. Appreciate you and the time you took to delve into this. Helps so much.
Thank you so much for this class and all the effort you put into helping us. I truly appreciate you and your point of view. It’s been enlightening and lovely. Hope to connect again soon.
Shanda M. Voice on the Page participant, SavvyAuthors 2017

This was a fantastic class! Thanks to Shelley I had some major breakthroughs. I have always struggled with revisions, and in her class I realized it was because I didn’t trust myself as a writer. With her gentle guidance, I found my inner voice again. Telling the story I want to tell, the way I want to tell it, has brought joy back to the writing experience for me! It’s been so wonderful to approach revisions with excitement, and not the dread I used to have. Wonderful class! India P. Voice on the Page participant, SavvyAuthors 2017

AFTER THE WEBINAR, WHAT NEXT?

If you would like to go further into reawakening and deepening your writing voice, you will be able to sign up for a group session limited to fifteen writers. The cost of the session will be $25 per writer and will last approximately two hours (depending on how many writers sign up). You will be asked to send in the first two pages of a current work to discuss with me during our time together.

Much of my work with writers is informed by twenty years of working with actors, who bring everything to the rehearsal room. My job then was to find the seed of what was the most important thing, the most authentic thing, in what the actor wanted to bring to the character, to keep building on that seed, and to jettison everything else. This is very much the way I approach my work with writers. Except that instead of the acting seed—what I am most interested in for writers is for them to really write the story they absolutely believe in. And to jettison everything that is unimportant and inauthentic to their vision and voice.

If you feel your knowledge of craft has created a split between you and your vision, if you want to get back to writing with your voice, without having to throw away your hard-won knowledge,  please join me on Sunday, 2nd April 2017 at 1.00pm Eastern Daylight Time.

Isn’t it time to be in control of your writing again?

I look forward to speaking with you and send you Spring’s joy.

Shelley

P.S. If you are new to writing, you are welcome to join the webinar.

To find out more about me go here
To join me on the webinar on April 2, or to receive a copy of the recording, fill out the contact form HERE

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YOUR VOICE IS NEVER WRONG

In the summer of 1985, I was invited to stage a play-in-progress at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. It was a momentous occasion: a collaboration by three leading playwrights in the Asian American community, it was one of the Festival’s highlights.

If you’ve ever tried to get one writer—let alone three writers—to finish a creative project on time, you’ll have an inkling of how this gig played out.

Now that I have returned to writing after a career in theatre—where the curtain goes up, ready or not—I understand why writers procrastinate even if they were burning with inspiration the day before. Because inspiration is like a firefly: you catch its beauty in the moment and then, it’s gone. Winked out as if it never was. Unlike theatre, we have no props or sets to simulate reality for us. We have nothing but words.

The following summer, the director of the Festival invited me to return as a co-director of a workshop for emerging playwrights. Over the course of two weeks, I co-led the project to facilitate the creation of short works by the playwrights and to stage them on the last weekend of the Festival.

I no longer remember what any of the pieces were, but I vividly recall an exercise that called for the animation of items in a refrigerator. The writing was fresh across the board. The refrigerator characters displayed all the peevish unpredictability of human captiousness or the nobility of human magnanimity. They were by turns hilarious and poignant, menacing and courageous.

The writing was fresh in part because people wrote from a stance of “Game on!” But it was also fresh because the exercise was unexpected. It came out of the blue, and on a day when everyone was ready for “Game on!” creativity.

I am not an advocate of writing prompts though I know many writers who love them. I find they stifle my imagination; but more important, they stifle my voice. Like the taste or texture of certain foods, the appeal and draw of such exercises is purely personal. What appeals to one writer is anathema to another. I’ve taken classes and been in groups where prompts were the primary means of eliciting stories from participants. In the end, they never took me farther than the idea I’d manufactured to fit the prompt.

I want my work to breathe with its own rhythms and cadences, to find resonance with readers, to be alive. For me, that means working from the inside out, not from the outside in.

I imagine a writer who loves prompts could argue, “Well, you take the seed of what you created from the prompt and bring it to life.” Fair enough. I have something to say about seeds a little later on. But this particular way of generating one doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t give me access to my voice.

One thing I’ve known about myself, from the time when I was old enough to understand such things, is that I have a writer’s voice. I may never write brilliantly, but I will always write with a voice that no other writer has.

I thought I would grow up to become a playwright. Instead, when I grew up, I became a theatre director. Directing is not my forte. I don’t have the kind of personality that does well with large groups of people in need of a therapist. Directing is as much about keeping track of everyone’s mental health as it is about presenting the playwright’s vision of the play.

Although I was never keen on being company therapist, I did love working with actors. In reality there’s no such thing as a lazy actor, only an arrogant person who believes they don’t have to work as hard as everyone else to make the production a success. If you’ve never spent time in a rehearsal room, actors are extraordinary. Writers have a difficult time with rejection letters; but an actor is often rejected before they can utter a word in the audition because they’re the wrong physical type.

(If you haven’t seen Tootsie, I recommend it. Also Dustin Hoffman’s interview on why he made the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPAat-T1uhE)

Actors are extraordinary because they always bring everything possible to the character. In early rehearsals most of what they bring doesn’t work. The actor knows this and the director knows this. The secret is to jettison what doesn’t work and build on the kernel that does.

My job as the director was threefold: to be true to the playwright’s intent; to be true to the actors; and to be true to the audience. That was a lot of truth I had to live up to and fulfill.

The same can be said for writers: we have to be true to the intent of our story; we have to be true to our characters; and we have to be true to our readers. The difference is that we have to do all of this by ourselves. We are a one-person ensemble without the luxury of external props, sets, lighting, and actors to carry the burden of our tale that must be told. Which brings me to voice.

Underpinning everything that comes together to make up our story—those characters and settings, landscapes and themes—is our voice.

Voice is the least understood aspect of writing because it cannot be defined. When agents and publishers say, “I don’t know what I’m looking for but I know it when I see it,” they’re referring to the writer’s voice.

Because voice is impossible to define, sometimes you’ll read or hear someone say, “Either you have it [voice] or you don’t.” I read this recently as a reply to a post on a well-known literary agent’s blog. Well, I’m here to tell you that you have voice whether you like or not, and whether you believe me or not.

I’m also here to tell you that your voice is impossible to pin down because it is nothing less than the content of your heart and mind and soul.

Remember that seed in the rehearsal room I mentioned earlier? That seed was the character’s heart and mind and soul the actor wanted to access, in order to bring the character to life in performance. That seed is what makes us unique. It is the reason no one can tell you: “Your voice is wrong.” Your story’s voice may be wrong for the story, but your voice can never be wrong.

If you junk everything else in this post as “not for me,” remember this one thing and you’ll be ahead of the game: Your voice can never be wrong. Never.

I haven’t said much about a writer’s voice because I want you to listen to your voice—to your heart and mind and soul—to tell the story only your voice can tell. Sometimes that story begins with a personal blog post. Sometimes it begins with “Once upon a time.”

However it begins, let it begin with your voice. Because your voice is never wrong.

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