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: 3 Reasons Why you Should Consider a Blogging Series

If you blog on a schedule (i.e., every Tuesday at 11:00a), then you already use this feature. If you blog about one topic on a schedule (Writer’s Workshop), then that qualifies as a series as well. However, the type of series I’m referring to is the kind I shared a couple weeks ago reflecting on my travels. This type of series is more like Netflix. There are at least three posts, and they are serialized to come one right after the other. Once you’re done, you return to your regular posting schedule.

Here are three reasons you may consider this type of blogging style:

#1 Your post is too long. Most blogging “gurus” will suggest you write under 750 words. I agree. Anything longer, and you run the risk of losing your reader. The first blogging series I did was when my father died. I needed to write about my experiences with him; however, it ended up being a three-thousand-word document. I knew that was way too long…no matter how captivating I thought the story was. So, I broke up one essay into five and shared one a day leading up to his funeral. By that Saturday, people were invested in the narrative and genuinely offered me some much-needed support.

#2 You want to delve into a topic. Although I hate the phrase deep dive, deep diving aptly describes my purpose for blogging. If I want to remain surface level about a subject, then I use social media, like Twitter or IG, but when I wanna get deep—I blog. With the travel series, the only way I could fit everything in one post would have been to use bullet points with little explanation. Bullet points work, but the format wouldn’t have served my purpose if I really wanted you to lean into the story and the lessons with me. So, I opted for a series.

#3 You want feedback for a publication. I never write a series for this reason, but it is a thing. When I published the series about my father, another blogger provided some advice. “Flesh out your father’s character, and make him seem more multidimensional,” she said. Later, I had the inclination to publish this story in its entirety as a creative nonfiction work, and in addition to her feedback, a friend of mine also suggested adding some details to my father’s character.

Similarly, you can use the statistics feature that WordPress offers to understand which parts of the series garner the most attention. This may lead you to develop the best parts into a publication.

I know there are more reasons for writing a series that are focused on marketing (e.g., gaining more followers, etc.), but those don’t fit my personality or rationale.

Have you ever written a series? If so, feel free to share how it’s helped you in some way.



Monday Notes: Monson Arts Residency

Who do you blame for not being the artist you were meant to be? That was one of the questions in The Artist’s Way.

It didn’t take long for me to come up with an answer. First, I blamed my parents. When I was in the fifth grade, I wrote a book called On the Farm. My fifth-grade teacher was so impressed, she entered the book into a citywide contest either named after or sponsored by Gwendolyn Brooks. I’ve written about this before. I didn’t win; however, now that I’m a parent, I wonder why no one asked me about my interest in writing. As an adult, I realized it’s probably because it was the same year my mother received a kidney transplant. She was hospitalized 150 miles away in Madison, Wisconsin. So, her illness probably took precedence over my perceived art.

Next, I blamed my grandmother. The year after my mother died, I announced to her that I was going to write a book.

“About what?” she asked.

“About my mother’s death,” I said.

“You think you’re the only person whose lost her mother?”

I didn’t answer, but what I did do is stop thinking about writing … anything … for a very long time.

After writing something similar to the above in my Morning Pages, I closed my journal and I cried. That was October 2021.

But as I continued The Artist’s Way activities, a thought emerged. I can do the writer things I wished my caretakers would have. I can nurture myself as an artist in ways I wished my parents would have. I can speak positively about myself as an artist in ways that I wished my grandmother would have. I’m an adult, and it’s up to me to live the life I want and to be the artist I want to be.

That’s part of what led me to applying for the Monson Arts Residency. I needed to submit the following:

  • a cover letter explaining why I wanted to come to Monson, Maine and what I’d be doing while I was there,
  • a writing sample,
  • a website, and
  • two references.

The first time I applied, I didn’t get it; however, the director encouraged me to re-apply in 2022, and if I did, he’d waive the application fee. I did, and this time, I was awarded the residency.

Cue the Prosecco!

Holmquist House

I’ve been quiet on the blog because I was in Monson from March 27th to April 7th being the artist I always wanted to be.

For twelve days, I lived in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a housemate. During that time, I received free breakfast from the General Store and lunch and dinner from a trained chef named Lou Lou. Lou Lou bought fresh groceries daily to prepare meals for us, like Ahi tuna tartare, pork belly, and congee with saffron. The intentionality of her meal creations was surreal. I had my own writing studio in another house that overlooked a lake with a view of the mountains. At the end of it all, I received a check for five hundred dollars. They paid me to be there. I was literally nurtured as a writer.

I have to repeat that. The nurturing I wished I had, I received from this writer’s residency, including being safe, secure, fed, and paid.

With nothing to worry about, I wrote no less than six hours a day, and with that, I was able to finish a draft of my second memoir.

I’m still in awe that I was even there. But I hope you see what I’m saying. I will always advocate for drilling down to the source of how you became who you are. After all, each of us is a product of our environments. But if you’re dissatisfied with the outcome of your upbringing, it’s equally important to take the reigns of your own life and do the things that will allow you to be who you desire. You’re the only one who can do that 😉

Next week, I’ll share the lessons learned/reinforced about myself while I was in Maine. Until then, let me know what you think in the comments.


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?

Writer’s Workshop: Introductions

Introductions are important. Just think about your favorite song. Whether it’s the way the first note comes in or it’s the way an artist says the first word, the introduction to a song determines if you’ll continue listening or fast forward to something else.

Writing is no different.

A good first line or paragraph lets me know if I’ll be reading more of what the author has to say.

Let’s look at this intro to My Dead Parents:

My mother, Anita, died in her sleep in 2010, when she was sixty-four and I was thirty-two. The official cause of death was heart failure, but what she really died from was unabashed alcoholism, the kind where you drink whatever you can get your hands on, use your bed as a toilet when you can’t make it to the bathroom, and cause so much brain damage you lose the ability to walk unsupported. The case of her death was herself, and her many problems. (Anya Yurchyshyn)

As someone who spends a lot of time reading and studying the writer’s craft, I loved this introduction. As soon as I read these eighty-four words, I thought man, if this is how the story begins, then I can’t wait to read the rest of this book!

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Therefore, I focus for several minutes (sometimes days) on how I will begin any piece of writing. Let’s take “Monday Notes: Seeking Perfection” as an example. Because this was a blog post, I knew I couldn’t waste time getting folks engaged. Initially, I wrote this:

I awoke in a Northwestern Memorial Hospital bed with two women staring at me, one was the nurse and the other, my mother. They told me I’d been hit by a car.

This wasn’t the most engaging introduction for a few reasons:

  1. Readers need to know why I was in the hospital sooner.
  2. Narrative is important. People prefer stories, even if they’re brief. So, I opted for an anecdote.
  3. Beginning in medias res (in the middle of things) is a strategy, but I’d begun too far in the middle. I needed to pull it back to provide a bit of context.

Ultimately, the introduction became this:

I was hit by a car when I was fourteen years old. It was a Saturday. Because my father was the youth pastor, we were going to church to pick up teens for an activity. When we arrived, my then best friend stood across the street in front of the building. She yelled out my name, and without a second thought, I darted into traffic.

This first sentence may be a bit of a shocker. Most people (friends, family, or bloggers) don’t know I was hit by a car. So, I’d argue that a reader would want to read more about this. The next few sentences rewind the story a bit so that you can understand how I was hit in the first place. Then, the remainder of the blog delves deeper into the actual topic: A small imperfection, such as chipping my tooth has bothered me since I was a teenager.

There are many ways you can begin your writing. I’ve just described one: beginning with a narrative. You can also ask a question, begin with a quote, provide a statistic, or give a description.

Have you ever thought about how to begin your writing? Do you just start writing? Do you have a favorite first line from a song or book? Let me know in the comments.

Monday Notes: Journaling

Last month, I presented on the benefits of journaling to a group of Black women creatives. I thought it would be helpful to share here, too.

In preparation for my presentation, I learned the difference between a diary and a journal is that a journal is meant to be reflective, as opposed to simply listing the day’s events. So, this one is specifically a reflective journal. The inside of the journal shown here is separated into sections. I’ve dedicated each one to a different subject that I can reflect on. For example, the forgiveness section is filled with short letters written to people I’ve needed to forgive. Contemplating on past entries shows me if there’s been growth. In the tarot section, I ask a question and then pull my cards and write down the answer. I compare last year’s answers with this year’s to determine if there’s been a change.

The second kind of journal I keep is a gratitude journal. I’ve maintained one of these every year, for the past ten years or so. My process includes the following: lighting incense, sitting in a quiet place, and writing those I AM statements I told you about. Usually, I affirm the same three things: I am love. I am adequate. I am important, unless I have something I’m working on, then I might add a new one, like I am abundant.

After I’ve finished affirming myself, I write five people, experiences, or things for which I’m grateful. I recently modeled this behavior for thirty days on social media as a way to disrupt negative news cycles and also as a way to remind myself there’s always something or someone to appreciate.

When I’m not writing in either of these bounded beauties, I’m journaling on my laptop or digitally. I first realized the power of simply sitting quietly and pouring out thoughts when my father died. That was 2015. We were in what I thought was the middle of repairing our strained relationship when he passed. I still had unresolved, unprocessed feelings that had to be released. So, I sat in my stepmother’s spare bedroom and wrote about the beginning of our dysfunction to the end, his death. I blogged these entries each day leading up to his funeral, creating a seven-day series. The global blogging community grieved with me and it was comforting.

I’ve also used a digital journal to capture and sort through unexpected emotions, like when I was traveling to a conference and TSA frisked my afro. I was compelled to write about the event immediately to capture the events and my feelings. I had no intention of publishing anything, until I posted about the situation on FB. One of my flight attendant friends told me searching hair was illegal. When I arrived at my hotel, I researched the topic and found out one woman had sued TSA for a similar experience. That’s when I turned my journal entry into a For Harriet publication.

Finally, most of you know I keep a cell phone journal. I use my iPhone Notes section because it’s more convenient and less ceremonial than the other ways I’ve mentioned. Thoughts occur if I’m in the middle of a conversation with someone, while I’m scrolling social media, or when I awake and fall asleep. During these times, I write a quick note. Other times, I’ll journal several paragraphs. The length depends on how deep my thinking is at the time. At any given moment, there are about 200 notes on my phone. If I can’t get the thought out of my mind, then the public gets to read it…as Monday Notes.

Here’s how I journal and why. Let me know if you keep any type of journal. What’s the point? Does it help?

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.

***

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.

Monday Notes: In Search of Balance

The past 11 weeks, I’ve been busy. Remember when I silently reflected and meditated for 14 days? Remember when I said I needed to figure out how to generate more money? Welp, shortly after, I attracted several clients.

Since mid-June, I’ve edited 12 manuscripts. This means each week, I’ve pored over a different person’s dissertation or self-published book. While I’m grateful for the business, there have been repercussions.

My dry eye flared back up. About two years ago, the optometrist diagnosed me with this condition. To remedy it, I use eye drops; I only wear daily contacts (the kind you have to throw away after one use); and I take frequent screen breaks. Usually I can keep it under control, but staring at the computer, while reading 200-page manuscripts every week caused it to return. Sometimes this meant my right eye felt a little itchy and dull; other times it meant there was a bit of pain right behind my eyeball.

woman-typing-on-keyboardWriting was not a priority. This really bothered me. During the past few weeks, I’ve wanted to write. In fact, I’d created a goal to write a new piece and submit for publication every two weeks. This was impossible. It turns out that it’s challenging for me to read other people’s works, while writing my own. I don’t know about you, but I need time and space for the writing process to unfold. By the time I turned off my clients’ work and decompressed, I was tired and only wanted to sleep. This was a bit frustrating for me because I value writing above all else.

Reading blogs shifted to an even lower priority. I found myself not wanting to read as many blogs, which is unusual. Even when I’m on a social media break, I take at least one hour every day and read other bloggers’ material. But after editing thousands of words for hours, I didn’t want to read anyone else’s. It didn’t matter how inspirational, uplifting, or funny the blog was, I couldn’t make myself read for 60 minutes and meaningfully engage.

Editing 12 manuscripts in 11 weeks reinforced a few lessons:

  • Know your priorities. While I know that priorities shift depending on the circumstances, I think that your main priority should always remain number one. For example, writing is important to me. I actually felt bad that I didn’t want to exert the energy to express myself, even though I had the words piling up in my brain.
  • Know your limits. Prior to taking on so many clients, I already had a sense for what was reasonable for my lifestyle. The number is two. I can edit two manuscripts per month and maintain a sense of calm. Anything else is too much, and I won’t be wavering on that moving forward, unless I hire help.
  • Be ready for what you’ve requested. I asked for an increase in income, and I received it. But I wasn’t necessarily prepared for some of the consequences. As a result, I’ll be fine tuning how I co-create my life because after all, I’m in charge of myself and my choices.

So, tell me…how have you all been? What’s been going on? Have you ever gotten a little more than you bargained for? If so, how did you cope?

Monday Notes: Do These 3 Things Before Self-Publishing!

I love supporting people and their endeavors. I also love supporting authors, especially if they are independently published. Over the past three years, I’ve read approximately fifteen self-published books. Five of these were just since January. And most of you know, I’m also independently published. So, I feel confident in offering a few suggestions for those of you who are almost ready to click that publishing button on Amazon, Lulu, Ingram Spark, or Create Space.

editor#1: Please pay for an editor. I know firsthand that editors can be costly. For The Unhappy Wife, I paid a little under $300 and for Daddy, approximately $700. But, I will tell you what. Not one person has approached me asking if I had either edited. This is important. When readers open your book, they are expecting quality, especially if they’ve spent over $10. They are not expecting to trip over misspelled words and syntax errors. In fact, for avid readers, this can be a turn off, not only from finishing the book, but also from trusting you as an author whose work they should read in the future.

#2: Please pay for formatting. I’ve read a few indie books that looked as if the person just uploaded their Word document to a platform for sale. This is a no-no. Sometimes the editor you paid from #1 can also format your book. However, be sure s/he understands the nuance between formatting for a printed book and formatting for an eBook. There is a difference. For example, an eBook has to be reflowable; this means the book reorganizes or reformats itself, no matter the device. It’s the reason you can read a book on your tablet or on your cell phone and it looks the same. Conversely, your printed book has to be created as a static version, and depending on the size of your book, there are also specific dimensions you must adhere to. An editor who knows formatting can help you with either of those.

open_book#3: Proofread your book prior to publishing. I know you’re probably like, KG, I already paid the editor all this money. Why do I have to proofread? Because I said so, that’s why. Just kidding. Let me tell you what happened to me. With Daddy, I paid someone to format, trusted her, and ordered 50 copies. I opened up the book and it was all kinds of terrible. Spacing was off. Words were missing for some reason. It just looked unprofessional. On top of that I had just wasted a couple hundred dollars ordering the books because I was not about to allow that copy to be purchased by the public. I ended up finding someone else and the book looks like the version you have in your possession.

If you’re looking for affordable formatting, Fiverr is a reputable site. I’ve used it before and paid no more than $25. The editor I trusted for Daddy is named Christine Schmidt at True-Blue Editing. Finally, I also have a business that offers proofreading, copy and line editing, called Writing Endeavors®. I’d love to work with you.

Best of luck if you’re planning to self-publish! If you have any other advice for these types of authors, then please feel free to share in the comments.