# of pages written: 6
# of days left to write 1st draft: 139
When I was teaching high school, I had a student who would shout “AWKS!” loudly whenever someone did something that she thought was awkward. For example, if I accidentally called a student by the wrong name or tripped over the overhead projector cord she would yell “AWKS!” I could never punish her for it because it always made me laugh. Soon it caught on, and I heard students yelling “AWKS!” in the classrooms and hallways all over school. I even found myself saying it under my breath at faculty meetings.
Of course, this is nothing new. When I worked at an orthodontist’s office, one of the older assistants used to say, “oh my geez-um,” and pretty soon we were all saying it. I still say “geez-um” to this day. I also find myself saying some of my mother’s phrases, like “just for funsies,” and I’m definitely guilty of using my friend Chana’s lingo from time to time. She’s famous for shorting words like “laids” for ladies and “totes” for totally.
Recently, I’ve found myself mimicing Nikki’s way of talking. “Excellent job!” I’ll say in a crisp, emphatic tone. Or, “I’m going to the bathroom now!” (Nikki’s speech tends to be peppered with exclamation points in unexpected places.) But then, last night, I talked on the phone to my friend Laura and it seemed that my voice suddenly sounded low and more drawn-out – more like hers.
I guess we’re all influenced by other people’s patterns of speech, and the more time you spend with someone the more likely you’ll start picking up some of their habits. I think this also happens in writing. We’re often influenced by the voices of the books we’re reading, so much so that I’ve heard some writers say they don’t read books when they’re writing. I know when I read Miranda July’s book of short stories No One Belongs Here More Than You (and I do so quite often), I find that my writing takes on a personal, casual, and almost child-like quality, similar to hers. When I read my giant book of gothic tales, suddenly I’m writing with a somber, confessional tone and noting the eeriness of my characters’ surroundings. Most recently I re-read Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, and when I sat down to write, my sentences were coming out unsympathetic and cold and filled with bizarre observations.
Of course, immitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I like to think that I’m learning something by writing in different styles, but it becomes a problem when I’m trying to write a long piece. I’ve written on the same project for a few days, and it seems like every day my voice is different. It started out a playful, fast-paced narrative filled with humorous asides, but now it’s darker and slower with more emphasis on dialogue and description. Who knows what it will sound like tomorrow. I feel like I need to pick one voice and stick with it, and I worry that I don’t really know what my own voice sounds like.
Of course, the solution is to just keep writing and see what comes out. Maybe eventually I’ll settle into a voice, or one of the voices will become more prominent than the others. I’m learning that I just need to keep going and not worry and go back and fix things the second time through. Not that I’m actually doing this. What I still need to learn is to listen to my own advice.
This afternoon, I decided to take a break and go for a bike ride. I was just pedaling down the path, looking at the marsh, when the first line of a story came to me, and then the next, and then the next. A character bloomed in front of me and said something unexpected. I came home and wrote down everything I could remember. I’m not saying it was good, but I think what I wrote down was in my voice and not anyone else’s. I just needed to clear my head and listen.