Writer’s Workshop: Voice

My first blog post was “Why I Refuse to Judge Any Mother.” In it, I describe my observations of a friend’s mother, juxtapose her mother with how I felt about my own mother, and then explain how I hope my own daughters will see me as a mother—when they eventually begin to reflect.

Out of all the texts I received, I appreciated my journalist friend’s the most.

“Kathy, this is good,” she said. “You have what they call voice. In grad school, they used to always talk about how you should have voice in writing. You have it.”

In literature, “voice” refers to the rhetorical mixture of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax that makes phrases, sentences, and paragraphs flow in a particular manner.

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-find-your-writing-voice

Whenever I write, I want the reader to experience exactly what I was thinking or feeling.

But how do I do this?

Brace yourself.

I may tell you something that goes against what you’ve been told before:

I pretty much write how I talk and think. Even that last sentence is an example. I promise you a grammar program will tell you to remove “pretty much” because it’s unnecessary, but I left it in because that’s how I talk and think. If we were together, and you asked me how do I write? I’d say I pretty much write how I talk and think.

What is also helpful is my brain’s duality. I was raised in a family that valued so-called standard English, so I grew up learning the syntax appropriate for news personalities and job interviews. However, I was also raised on the west side of Chicago, which by all accounts is the hood. I quickly learned how to switch the verb “to be” around or to insert a cuss word so as not to be accused of talking like a White girl. I’m not special. Many Black people know how to codeswitch in this way.

What this means for my writing is I can create a sentence that appeals to White folks and Black people…or should I say Black folks and White people. You see how just interchanging those two words—folks and people—shifts meaning and tone?

I also want my writing to be accessible. I want to have a conversation with you. In order to do that, I have to write how I would talk if we were together having a latte, green tea, or Caipirinha. So, sometimes I stop, and address you directly. Maybe I’ll add a question, like what do ya’ll think to invite you into this conversation we’re having, while also throwing in the Southern dialect I’ve acquired from living in Florida for over two decades.

Most of my in-real-life friends who read my blog say, “Girl, I could hear you saying…” And that’s what I want.

To reiterate, if you’re concerned with developing voice in writing, then you have to determine what “vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax” you want to use and why. Only you know what that is.

And remember, voice, kind of like personality, cannot be imitated because it’s something only you possess. (Full disclosure: I sat here for five minutes flip-flopping between the word possess and own).


Do you worry about voice in writing? Does it matter?

Writer’s Workshop: Studying the Craft

There are many ways to study the craft of writing. You can earn a bachelor’s degree in English. You can attain an MFA in creative writing. You can even take a few classes here and there to learn from experts.

But what should you do if you’re like me and have no intention on setting foot in another university as a student?

Read. That’s what! Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish. For me, that’s memoir.

Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish.

So, in 2018, I read ten memoirs to learn what bestsellers are made of and to understand what the pulse of a “good” memoir is. Here’s what I found out.

A “good” memoir focuses on one theme. My favorite memoir that demonstrates this basic principle is Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. The overarching question is why have so many of the men in her community died? The quick answer is the interrelated nature of racism, poverty, and gender. The long answer is her 256-page memoir, where chapters are written in a seesaw fashion. One chapter is devoted to understanding one man’s in-depth story, while the next chapter reflects Ward’s life as it was related to each man. By the end of the memoir, Ward has clearly made a case for how systemic racism affects human beings.  

A “good” memoir has to present a bigger purpose. A bigger purpose doesn’t mean theme, necessarily, but it should answer the question: why is this author telling these stories? In My Dead Parents: A Memoir, Anya Yurchyshyn spends the first half of her book describing how much she disidentifies with her parents, how much she hates them, and how much their deaths don’t affect her. Part two digs deeper and explores who her parents really were prior to marriage and children and how this showed up in her life. This is ingenious. Anyone can write a book about why they dislike their parents. But she researches their histories as a way to see their identities, and then analyzes their lives outside of being her parents.

A “good” memoir weaves back and forth through time. This is a skill. Tara Westover’s Educated is superb at showing how to write a linear/not-linear story, which is important. While the overall story should be a cohesive narrative, it should travel back in time and then snap or slowly crawl back to the near present. For example, Westover remembers one of her brother’s violent acts from when she was an adolescent and then moves the story forward to a more recent memory of when she planned to visit home. The memory of the violence is important for how she will return and interact with her family in the book’s present.

A “good” memoir fits into a clear subgenre. Issa Rae uses humor for The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which is a coming-of-age memoir. Kenan Trebinčević’s The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return is obviously a historical memoir, and so is The Girl Who Escaped Isis (Farida Khalaf and Andrea C. Hoffmann). Celebrity memoir is a thing, but more literary leaning ones, like Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime demonstrate sociocultural lessons. Finding Your Creative Muse explains more about these categories.

There’s nothing wrong with taking classes or seeking degrees; however, if you’d like to see what works for published authors, then I suggest reading in the genre you plan to write. I am also in no way advocating that you imitate the style of your favorite author. To me, that’s a no-no, but studying and learning about how others put words together? That’s a win for you and your growing body of work.

Are you intending to publish a book one day? Who’s your favorite author? What’s your favorite genre? What makes a book good?

Mental Health Matters: 3 Ways to Develop Self-Worth

As promised, I’m shifting the focus of Mental Health Matters to discuss ways I’ve learned to be a less codependent version of myself. This week, I’ll discuss one of the characteristics of being codependent: having low self-esteem.

Self-esteem is defined as the manner in which we evaluate ourselves. For example, I’ve always believed myself to be a pretty and intelligent person, thus creating high self-esteem.

However, self-worth is the belief that you are loveable and valuable regardless of how you evaluate your traits. Your self-worth is directly related to your childhood. For example, because I was abandoned as a baby and then later as an adolescent, I believed I was literally worthless. Underneath my highly rated self-esteem was a very low self-worth. I truly believed I didn’t deserve love.

But over time, I’ve developed a higher sense of self-worth with these three practices:

Remove Personal Value from Abandonment. As a person who was abandoned by her birth and adoptive parents, I constantly wondered why? Why was I left? What was wrong with me? Because I’m analytical, the conclusion that made sense was…I guess they didn’t love me. To establish a higher self-worth, I had to separate my parents’ actions with how much they valued or loved me. Like all adults, each of my parents had their own reasons for how they lived life. And although their actions negatively impacted me in some ways, it had nothing to do with my worthiness but, rather, everything to do with their own issues and rationales. There is no reason for me to take any of my parent’s choices personally and there is definitely no reason to assign my value to their decisions.

Enact Self-Love. The other day, I was listening to Dr. Shefali Tsabary. Loosely paraphrased, she suggested that if four basic needs weren’t met by aged two, then you’re not going to receive them unless you give them to yourself. My experience tells me she’s right. Once I realized I had low self-worth, I knew one thing I had to do was love my own self. So, six years ago, I visualized myself as a five-month-old abandoned baby. Being a mother, I knew a baby needed physical contact, food, and security. In my imagination, I picked up baby kg, hugged myself, and told myself: I love you. You matter. Just last month, I learned that you can also give yourself a hug as a way to show yourself love. This month, I’ve continued my self-love work practice by reading and enacting Louise Hay’s mirror work. Self-love, for someone who hasn’t had it, can be ongoing work. But it’s worth it. I mean, who else is better equipped to remind myself that I’m worthy of love than me?

I AM Statements. A therapist once pointed out that I used the phrase I’m not important a lot. Whenever a family member or friend didn’t do something I’d asked, then I concluded it was because I wasn’t important. The therapist suggested a homework assignment: Write I am important, repeatedly. I’d already been keeping a gratitude journal, so I began writing it there. After I realized I had to love myself, I added I am love to the list. I also write I am adequate as a way to remind myself that I am fine just the way I am…today…in this moment. Whether I have achievements, people, or neither…I am adequate being who I am. I’ve written these statements at least four times a week for almost ten years.

So, what does this have to do with codependence? Although Beattie only mentions self-esteem, I firmly believe that low self-worth can also lead to unhealthy, codependent attachments. For me, each relationship, including my marriage, served to prove that I was lovable and worthy of love, that I mattered.

These three strategies have helped me to know my worth, and consequently, have made me less likely to develop relationships to prove my value. 

If necessary, I hope what I’ve shared works for you, too. And if you have more suggestions to add, please feel free to do so in the comments.

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Here is more information about the difference between self-esteem, self-worth, self-confidence, and self-knowledge.

How to Establish 4 Types of Boundaries

No More People Pleasing!

Monday Notes: Control in the Midst of Too Much

Sometimes life is too much, like last month.

There was too much to accept.

Too much estrogen and not enough progesterone means I have a menstruation cycle every other week…sometimes. Other months, I have no period at all.

After showing me two ultrasounds of my “perfect” uterus and peering at my chart to check my age, two gynecologists assured me this is natural.

“It’s perimenopause,” they’ve both said, while shrugging their shoulders and pursing their lips into a doctor smirk, as if to say, buckle up.

The media makes it seem as if this phase of a woman’s life is all about hot flashes and moodiness. No one mentioned rogue periods.

Last month, I had too much to accept.

I wanted my oldest daughter to live her life partially on my terms: go to college, find a trade, whatever. Just be a productive citizen independent of her father and me. Guess what she’s done? Whatever she wants. Thus far, her life has consisted of bad decisions that, every now and then, cause me to ponder and fear for her wellbeing. Her life is made up of Tyler Perry tropes and Lifetime movie narratives. Lifetime used to be fun to watch on lazy Sundays. I remember stuffing my face with some snack, while analyzing how silly each woman seemed. It’s less entertaining when it’s your daughter.

Last month, I had too much to accept.

I finally felt COVID-19’s thievery. The pandemic had successfully snatched the type of life I’d carefully crafted and turned it into a sort of dull loop. This probably seems like no big deal to those who’ve suffered job or health loss. But I’m not really into comparing losses right now. This current way of life is not what I desire. I wanted to go to a movie, regret eating too much popcorn, and lose myself in someone else’s conflict for two hours. I wanted to visit my friends. I wanted to do more than shower and log on to our college’s learning management system.

But I couldn’t. I can’t.

I just have to accept what is. I have to accept what I can’t control and begin to control what I can.

Biologically, my body is going to do what women’s bodies do. The process is out of my hands. Sure, I can drink some herbal tea, but I can’t control perimenopause any more than I can control my eyes blinking. I can, however, properly exercise for my age and eat foods that work for my current body.

My twenty-one-year-old daughter unconsciously lives life on the edge and doesn’t notice when she’s about to lose her footing. Though it’s distressful, I can’t control this. She is not a child whom I can punish for two weeks. However, I can establish new physical and emotional boundaries for our relationship, which stem from love, yet also protect me from being swept up in her maelstrom. I like to watch suspenseful movies, not be a part of them.

Finally, COVID-19 is here to stay. The disease and our president’s lack of leadership is out of my control; however, I can determine what type of pandemic life I’m going to live. Sometimes I make a traditional Saturday breakfast during the middle of the week to shake things up. I’ve also begun taking random trips within my city to photograph inspirational moments. In a couple weeks, Dwight and I will travel to Michigan to attend our cousin’s wedding. According to the invite, social distancing rules will be in effect. This should be interesting.

I still have a lot to accept that I’ve left unsaid. But I’m getting better at focusing on what I can control. It’s been a helpful way to exist these days.   

~kg 8/26/20

Monday Notes: 5 Ways to Become a Writer

img_3443Sometimes I jot down a note and it’s very negative. When that happens, I re-focus and make it a positive post, like this one.

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I’ve written since I was in elementary school, fifth grade to be exact. However, I didn’t consider myself a writer until six years ago. Once I accepted this part of my identity, I started observing and listening to writers and “aspiring” writers. I’ve determined if you want to be a writer, then this is what you’ll have to do:

Start Writing Now that my writing is public knowledge, people confide in me. Cousins, the man at the Florida Writers Association conference, and the woman who asked me to ghostwrite her novel each want to write. But when I ask them what they’ve written so far, the answer is nothing. I advise each of them the same. Start writing. Whether it’s a public blog or a private diary, the first step is to begin.

Make Time to Write I often thought my job was getting in the way of writing. That wasn’t the truth. And because no one was going to offer me more time in the day, I had to shift my priorities. Instead of watching the Today Show every morning, I wrote for two hours. Then, I began my regular day. Where could you shift your priorities so that you can make time to write?

Take Time to Edit After you’ve written something, consider that your first draft. All writers have first drafts, and second, and thirds, and…you get the picture. As a former English teacher, rarely have I seen a masterpiece written in one fell swoop. When you take time to write, that means you might find yourself pondering over the use of the word stroll, saunter, or walk because you know each one of those words will change the connotation and flow of your sentence. So take the time to think about the words you’ve written in a meaningful way.

You Think Your Stories Have Already Been Heard Probably. I mean an infinite number of books have been written and read. But not yours and not the way you can write it. Comments about The Unhappy Wife have validated this concept. Recently, Story Teller Alley approved me to sell my book on their site. One of the reasons it was accepted is because of originality. A reviewer said,

Although stories of unhappy marriages have been told before, because these are all true stories and each person is different, the stories are all different.”

I’m glad the innovation shone through. Sometimes people read the title and assume they know what’s inside. But it’s a false assumption. Likewise, if I would’ve thought these were trite narratives, then I might not have written the book. So my advice? Don’t worry about it. Somebody wants to read it the way you’ve written it.

You’re Worried about What Other People Think If you follow my blog, then you know I write about many things that have happened in my life. Stories include family, friends, and people I barely know. I couldn’t write half of what you read here if I stopped to worry about someone’s hurt feelings and reinvention of history. Initially, an Anne Lamott quote helped me forge ahead with authentic writing, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” That quote changed my entire creative nonfiction writing life. The other part that has helped me write the truth is to separate fact from emotion. For example, it’s a fact that my dad packed up my belongings in the middle of the night while I slept. Consequently, I felt abandoned and pushed aside because of what occurred. Stick to the facts and make clear when you’re describing an emotion.

I hope one of these sparks the writer in you. Trust me. Someone, somewhere is waiting to hear your voice, even if the someone is you.