Go Ahead—Eat the Ice Cream

A few musings on the writing life (originally an essay for an ebook for Seth Godin’s Triiibes network):

  • Perhaps because I ate too many Snickers Bars as a child, since adolescence I’ve been set upon by bouts of existential dread. It harkens to Sartre’s great work, Nausea, when even everyday objects—the lamp, your keyboard, your wife—appear sinister and threatening. Is it true? Oh, absolutely, everything has its dark side. But you must outwit them: don’t stare the mad dog straight in the eye, but give it a sidelong glance as you skirt its sharp teeth. After a while, the lamp goes back to looking like a lamp. Your wife might be more dicey.
  • I have an inner voice that often tells me I’m a horse’s ass. Though that yoke occasionally fits, much of the time, it’s just the little voice of habit and self-doubt. As most asses need slapping, I’ll step to a mirror, look at the ass looking back at me and say, “You’re just a horse’s ass in the mirror, not my real self. My real self is a combination of Gandalf, Mother Teresa and Eddie Murphy. Begone!”
  • There are a lot of open fields in my neighborhood, where coyotes sometimes roam. I like to think of the mind, with its fears, hesitations and plunges, as a creature—like a coyote. Sometimes I see the coyotes slinking around, cur-like, with a guilty look. Other times I see them racing across the fields, and hear the merry yip-yip-yipping in the evening. I like to think of my coyote mind in this way: when it’s slinking and guilty, it’s but a small turn in perspective to release that mind. Release it to become the version of the Trickster that is both cunning and kind. That coyote brain yips its joy, not its fear.
  • Shakespeare, Faulkner, Austen all had days in which what they wrote was dung. On those days, they went fishing. So, whether in a bassy lake or a lake only of your imagination, drop a long line. Think of nothing. Feel the sun on your hands, the breeze on your forehead. The work will be there waiting for you, so bob that merry line until due time.
  • Laugh often, laugh loud. The world is a preposterous place, of pratfalls and puzzlements, where you go to scratch your nose and put your finger in your eye, where governments bloviate, where your neighbor wears his wife’s bra (not that there’s anything wrong with that), where the day you wax your car for the first time in a year, it rains. You can’t really account for the surreal, the stifling, the boring aspects of life. But this is the life you have—seize it, lick its neck, raise it skyward. The stories about the Other Place in the afterlife are just like filling an inside straight to me: possible, but not likely. So, it’s this world, this NOW, that has so many tears in it—sometimes all you can do is laugh.
  • A writer’s life is a peculiar one, of crooked gratifications and queer slights. So much is interior, subject to the fickle tastes and electrical storms of your own mind, which though you’ve sat in the room with it all your life, remains a mystery. Some days you might sling 1,000 good words over your shoulder, and shrug at its meaninglessness. Some days a single sentence will shine, and that’s enough.
  • The hell with it—once in a while, choose to eat as much ice cream as you want.

Word Magic: Why I Write

Think of your favorite book. No, better yet, go and get your favorite book, feel its heft in your hand, flip through its pages, smell its bookness. Read a passage or two to send that stream of sparks through your head, the alchemy that occurs when the written word collides with the chemicals of your consciousness: Delight is the fruit of that collision.

When I was seven or eight years old, I’d walk to the nearby public library, and go into the section on dinosaurs. I would lie in the aisle for hours, surrounded by scattered stacks of books, driving through a landscape of imagination, fueled by words. At first, I was simply thrilled by the stories of the great beasts, but after a time, I began to realize that I was taken by the words themselves—Jurassic, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus—and would say them softly aloud.

Many, many books later, it began to dawn on me that books were the conscious, choice-making work of authors. I started to fathom that a writer employed tools, framed a composition, shaped its architecture. Deeper yet, that writing had a voice, that it was animated by a current.

When I was twelve years old, I was swimming in the ocean and was tugged out by a small rip current that took me, amidst slamming waves, against the supports of a public pier. I screamed for help at the people looking down at me; no one seemed to react. I was terrified that I would die, while enraged that no one cared. In my agitation, I didn’t know that someone had called a lifeguard, who quickly rescued me.

A Pin That Poked Deeply
Months later, for a class assignment, I wrote an essay in which I described in detail my fear, fury and despair. My teacher later read the story aloud, saying it was a vivid slice of life. At the end of the year, the school handed out student awards, and I was given a little cloisonné pin that said “Best Writer.” I knew before then that writing had an unusual power over me, but the commendation told me that language, even my language, could hold sway over others as well.

I read broadly, though wrote only sporadically.

When I was fifteen, my parents granted me the indulgence of letting a friend paint, in a nice cursive script, the final page of Hesse’s Siddhartha on the wall, floor to ceiling, facing my bed. I thought that constantly reading those mindful words would prompt some spiritual renaissance. My other teenage absorptions checked that vow, but my interest in the power of words increased all the more.

Hesse said in an essay: “…I want to dream myself into priests and wanderers, female cooks and murderers, children and animals, and, more than anything else, birds and trees…” To me, he’s talking about the force of imagination, the authority of an authentic voice.

More and more, I came to see that the world of imagination is the biggest world there is, and that a writer can write to see the unexpected, to know the hidden, to do as Asimov suggested and “think through his fingers.” And that words can be so sensual you want to lick them.

Once Upon A Time…
I saw evidence everywhere that people were storytellers. They have been storytellers for ages, whether the words were inscribed on resistant stone, delivered in a lilting voice or caught in an electronic dance. I knew I wanted to be a storyteller too. However, I was still striking the anvil of ideas with brute blows, yet to learn the deft stitchings and tight knots in narrative’s fabric. But I wasn’t discouraged enough not to write. I tried poems, short stories, personal essays….

Twenty years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle accepted my article on my 15-year correspondence with the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, publishing it in the beloved Sunday Punch section. I bought 10 copies, and sat on a bench in Golden Gate Park just staring at my byline, not even reading the article. Still not literature, not the stuff of Lear’s stormy fulminations, of Conrad’s lurid Congo, of Twain’s beckoning twang, but for me, word magic.

I finally realized that I couldn’t wait for inspiration, a muse whose answering machine is all I got when I called. So, since then, a handful of published stories, a basketful of essays and articles, a finished novel that sleeps soundly, another in s-l-o-w progress.

I write because language is a bright bird, uncatchable, but worth every attempt.

[Note: the first paragraph of this piece is swiped from an essay I published a while back, and the rest is from an essay that won second place in an online contest (and destined to be published as one of an ebook collection), but the site was swallowed by evildoers. I wanted to give it some air…]

Writing Contemplation: Old Fogies, Big Stogies = Crisp Stories

Looking Down the Drive at Tulsa Lane

Yesterday was another turn on the wheel of one of my favorite Sunday afternoon pastimes (ahh, “Sunday pastimes,” which smacks of a gentler era seen through a bit of a mist): smoking a fat cigar and reading the newspaper, parked in a chair in my garage, which looks down our long driveway to the strawberry fields beyond. For me, the hour or so I spend, perhaps two or three Sundays a month, is one of those concentratedly “small” respites, where I breathe (really, despite the smoke), reflect on the triumphs and tribulations yodeling from the newsprint, and often consider a writing problem or possibility.

There are long beds the length of the driveway host to a melange of flowering plants, shrubs and trees, so the flitting of the hummingbirds and the bumbling of the bees provides a palette of color and pleasant movement, where I drink in droughts of pastoral pleasure in between recoiling from the accounts of the latest global atrocity, or wagging my head at some pundit’s proclamations.

That smoky solace let me take a sharp turn on an essay I’ve been writing in my mind, something that to this point had been a tangled skein of thoughts without warp or woof. There’s something about sitting in a hazy repose that’s of value to a writer, when the mind’s hummingbird dips into enough flowers to secure a sweet idea. Of course, the real trick is to implement, to actually weave something from the woolgathering. So I try to make it a habit, when I’ve been gifted with something more than fragrant breath from my cigarish contemplations, to get to the keyboard lickety-split, and weigh and record the nugget from the Sunday pannings. Jumpy writing ideas will turn to fool’s gold if you don’t stick a pin in them.

Kindling Your Writing
But it also occurred to me that “man in driveway with cigar and newspaper” is an anachronism, a diorama of a soon-to-be-bygone scene, with the newspaper now so much thinner than my cigars, and smoking in itself an odious step on the slippery slope to child pornography and wearing Crocs in church. I suppose I could read Elizabeth Barrett Browning on the Kindle while I drink some herb tea, but that doesn’t supply the requisite amount of vice for my tastes.

Besides, I take comfort in the rustle of the newspaper, the ever-morphing patterns of the rising and dissipating smoke, the acid balance of the big cup o’joe that’s always part of the picture. (When that cuppa isn’t the occasional brandy, which is just another notch on St. Peter’s staff, so that when I arrive at the pearly gates, he says, “You’re kidding, right?” But don’t forget that Mrs. Browning did like a swallow of opium or two in the middle of all that poesy*.)

Of course, my particular prescription to invite the writing muse might not be for everyone. Quilting might substitute well for the newspaper, but then you might light your handiwork on fire with the cigar ash. (And for women worried that those stubby sticks will clash with their gold lamé gowns, really, there are some slender panatela and cigarillo-style stogies that lend themselves just as well as those fulsome fatties to stylish, airy gestures and erudite commentary.)

But I think every writer should have a retreat, a place of studied measure and sifting, a place where you become The Thinker, only without the weight of all that bronze. A writer’s retreat, whether physical or philosophical, anachronism or not, is a yeasty place of stirring idea. Consider Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and apply it to your state. And be sure to wash the ashtrays afterwards.

*PS If you want to get a hint of writerly vices gone to polysyllabic extremes, read The Confessions of An English Opium Eater, by Thomas De Quincey. It is a word-drenched testimony of the drug’s effect on his senses and his writing, and is worth at least scanning for the cascade of voluptuous compound sentences and twirling literary merry-go-rounds.

Mom and Dad, the Original Authors

The Bentleys in 1958

The Bentleys in 1958

I was going to write a post today about my writing influences, tossing a salad of Annie Dillard and Atwood, a tangled pasta of Twain and Fitzgerald, spicy sides of Nabokov and Vonnegut, a shot of Cormac McCarthy, neat. But then I thought that sounded a mite pretentious, as though I could even carry the keyboards of those authors (or even tilt Twain’s first typesetting machine, one of his legacy of infernal investments). And who’s to say that I wasn’t just as influenced by the comic books I devoured (I wanted to name a pet after Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer), or the sports magazines that filled my mind with shimmering baseball diamonds and long fly balls caught after an impossible run?

Influences are a tricky thing. Of course I think you should steal freely the scent of another author’s writing, that ungraspable soupçon of ephemera that is clumsily dubbed “style.” That’s because you’ll catch your tongue in the literary rat trap if you try to directly steal the substance of another’s writing. Mumbling out inane imitations will be your sorry fate. Snagging some stylings is more subtle theft, like being able to mimic the way an author buttons her coat, rather than actually buying—and eek!—wearing the same clothes.

Blood as Influence
But thinking of influences made me think of other influences from way back: my parents. I have so much to be grateful for in having a mother who didn’t harangue me and my siblings about reading as a necessity, but instead, took so much pleasure in reading herself. You’ll develop a hunger for something in watching another eagerly eat it. There were always books around the house, and the relaxed sense that wiling away some hours nose-deep in a tome wasn’t a way to waste time but to explore it: books are time travels, the widest carpets of brilliant flowers on the steppes, a landowner’s cruel glance at the starveling slave, the wince from a princess as she turns her delicate ankle stepping from the liveried carriage. My mother welcomingly invited me into that parlor of pleasant musings and savage astonishments, and I haven’t looked back. And see my mother, nearly blind at 88, still reading for pleasure. Why? Because she enjoys the sound of the words in her head, the images, the story. I know; she taught me.

My father wasn’t a big reader, more inclined to the peppered nuggets of the newspaper than the seven-course meals of Russian novels, but again, I might never have been the reader, and thus the writer, that I am had he not schooled me in how to throw a baseball, how to shoot a basketball, things that impelled me to read biography after biography of my sports heroes (and to admire the tight turns-of-phrase of gifted sportswriters).

I was struck recently, in watching my father slowly work to pull off the tinfoil cover of a yogurt cup, how we have some of the same traits. My father is 93, and richly caped in the folds of his Alzheimer’s, yet some crossbeams of character persist. He can still haltingly feed himself, and I watched in fascination as he was slowly spooning yogurt into his mouth. Eyes barely open, he noticed that the tinfoil lid that covered the cup was still attached, and he very s-l-o-w-l-y worked it off with his weakened hands. It took a while, and visible effort, but I could see the small satisfaction in his face when he succeeded in removing it from the cup.

The Gene Pool of Picking Nits
That resonated with me, because I am a nitpicker, literally one who will spot the tiny bits of fluff on the carpet and bend to pick them up, and metaphorically so in my work as an editor, trying to manage errant (or arrogant) punctuation marks, making sure there aren’t two spaces when there should be one. Floating deeply in his condition, his language now restricted to short, sometimes muddy sentences, my father still notices some detail: “Why is that car door open?” in reference to a car parked outside, a reminder of my own fussiness about details. My father, editing the hanging lid, the out-of-place open car door. Writing, while ever the work of the lone temperament, in the interior of imagination’s house, always has an ear turned to hear the voices that populated the rooms in times past.

Whatever writing I do, my parents’ pulse beats along with mine.

Oh yeah, the picture: my parents, my siblings and me, approximately one thousand years ago. I’m the blond-haired punk, hoping against hope that I’ll get a cookie to take the pain out of this dreadful photo session. Those other kids are just troublemakers.

Kill Your Customer: Classic Customer Disservice

A friend of mine was in a Borders yesterday looking for a couple of books. She sat down on the carpeted floor in the travel section so she could comfortably pull out a few titles from a low shelf and check them out. A clerk came up and said, “Ma’am, customers are not allowed to sit on the floor.” She asked if he had a chair, and he said she would have to go to the cafe if she wanted to sit down.

They haven’t invented the right profanity for this situation yet, but let me express why it deserves one most sour: These are the days in which bookstores are going down. Amazon, ebooks, self-distribution, shortened attention spans—there are a raft of reasons. In this time when bookstores are at least on the threatened, if not endangered species list, you tell a customer they can’t sit in the store when they are looking at books? Greatgodalmighty!

When I was a kid, one of my greatest delights was to go to the library and surround myself with books I pulled off the shelves. I sat in the aisles for hours sometimes, lost in the world of words. Many years later (and the jobs years apart), I managed a couple of bookstores, even one owned by a corporation. There was no stiff-backed rule about sitting in the aisles—I couldn’t imagine shooing a customer away like that unless they were putting ice-cream cones in the books, or taking Magic Markers to them. Of course, of course, you don’t want your customers literally blocking the aisle, but this wasn’t the case.

Howl of Customer Cruelty
The kicker is that besides looking for a travel book, my friend was looking to buy a copy of Howl, the seminal Allen Ginsberg work. Why Howl? Because one of her clients is a poet. The client is moving to New Orleans, and she wanted to give him a gift. THAT’S customer service. Her customer is leaving, yet she is making him a generous gesture. That’s rising above—not practicing rule-making folly.

Don’t treat your customers like trash in your aisles. Find a connection, not a stiff-stick-up-the-rear rule. Share life’s poetry with them instead.

And for surviving my rant, you get a bonus treat: here is the last paragraph of Sunflower Sutra, one of the selections from Howl. Let’s be sunflowers instead of automaton clerks at bloodless corporations.

--We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread
bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all
beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we're blessed
by our own seed & golden hairy naked
accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black
formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our
eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive
riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening
sitdown vision.

How to Punctuate Your Epitaph

It was brought to my attention (I love the phrase, because I envision velvet-liveried footmen bringing a notion—one resting on a purple pillow—to me) that there is a book that takes a studied look at the history of parentheses, their use over the ages, their value as a species, their contributions not only to the literature, but as an aesthetic component of thought.

It is called But I Digress. Not only is this a work of 344 pages, its purchase price is $175. My.

Because I enjoy the employment (though not the moral obligations) of a good pair of parentheses myself, that spurred me to consider how the lovely little tocks and notches of punctuation create a soft side-current in the river of thought, an accent note, like how you might detect a whiff of elderberries in your Cabernet Franc, though its main train to your nostrils is peopled with toffee and raisin bread. Punctuation is the conductor’s wand to the orchestra’s melding of swelling verbal notes.

That got me to mulling over how the use of punctuation in some spare composition—an epitaph, say—might be the axis for delivering meaning. On the subject of epitaphs, writers should always write their own. You could do worse than emulate the sing-song declarativeness of some of the lines in the famed Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch:

He’s pining for a fjord
His metabolic processes are now history
He’s run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible

Categorizing Your Tombstone Tokens
Fine epitaphs, but in regards punctuation, those Pythonesque parrotings are lacking. Consider a few categories:

Friendly – A simple phrase like “Loads o’ fun” works well. The apostrophe indicating the omitted “f” is casual and merry, and bespeaks geniality. What about an Elizabethan elision: O’er teacakes and waistcoats, I did preside

Marketing – Employ the marketer’s cudgel: the exclamation point. Something like Dead! Thoroughly! Special Offer to Repeat Visitors!

Brevity – Though he spoke it, the one-word sign-off for Dan Rather’s news broadcast all but shouted (and because it was one word, also intimately whispered) that the word ended with a full stop: Courage. You could try something like Stewing. Or maybe Ennui.

Needs Answering – And the interrogative ending will surely get your plot’s visitors mulling over meaning: Mind getting me some water? or, Do you know that hat makes you look like a monkey?

Pauses and Ponderings – I like a nice mix of colons and semicolons on a stone: Note to self: I’ll nap here; at some point, I’ll have to do laundry.

Corral Your Word Cattle – And of course we have to visit what prompted this business in the first place, the exalted parenthesis: Keep the peace (and keep your hands off my wife). or Here I lie. (Hey, it’s better than stealing.)

Closing with a Bang
This post is going on a bit, so I’ll wait til later to address that charming, coy curve, the comma; the happy hand-me-the-baton linker, the hyphen; and that dashing fellow—the dash—but I do want to close with a bang: an interrobang, that is.

A combination of the question mark and the exclamation point (dubbed on Wikipedia as a “quesclamation” mark), the bang is implying the asking of a question in a heightened state. Perhaps for an epitaph, something like “Christ, all this and they give me a view of the Safeway‽”

Rest easy, folks. And make sure your punctuation rests with you.

We Are All Doomed: The Internet Is Blowing Chunks

I read with interest (and fear and loathing) a CNET review of Nick Carr’s recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. I’ll do here exactly what Mr. Carr treats as one of the disquieting subjects of his work: I’ll distill his book in a few sentences. In essence, he posits that the always-on, ever-spilling-over information font of the Internet is actually changing the nature of our brains. His position is that this next-next-next ad infinitum serving of info appetizers is resulting in a attenuation of the contemplative process, a wall to the deeper mulling over subject or sphere (and being able to distinguish which is important and which is simply “now”), and potentially the loss of our ability to reflect at a sustained level.

That made me consider how much advice on presenting information on the Net, particularly for copywriters, emphatically states that you must “chunk” information: render it in small, easily digestible paragraphs, preferably those not burdened with compound or complex sentences. Before anyone protests, of course I recognize that making any parallel between a broad—even philosophical—reading of how we now apprehend the world and how copywriters (with their loathsome goals of extolling benefits and persuading buyers) work their words might seem strained.

Fast-Food Information
But it’s a personal issue for me, because I am both a marketing copywriter and a fiction writer, and though I can readily compartmentalize the two, they still share an information DNA: communicating, spreading ideas, making sparks in the head. If Mr. Carr is right (and I’ve only read the review, not the book, so I’m stretching here), the Netheads of this world, a world that’s ever-expanding, will no longer have the hunger for—or even the skill to fully interpret—deep, thoughtful works.

For some reason, reading the Carr piece made me think of Crime and Punishment, how the central character, Raskolnikov, frets, fusses and agonizes over the killing of the pawnbroker, and later, has his psyche roil while undergoing the ferret-like questioning of the investigator Porfiry. Raskolnikov’s unease skirts near madness, and it’s a cumulative state, a long building of narrative tension and revelation. Would today’s readers just want the Cliff Notes: “Poor student goes crazy after killing pawnbroker and goes to prison to rot.”? That chunking summary is a dry cracker in the mouth of a sensuous, wine-mad, multi-course meal of a novel, a thousand spices and ten-story conversations.

There was a fabulous article in the New York Times yesterday titled “Tuna’s End,” an elegiac piece about the survival (dubious) of the “wild ocean” and some of its top-of-the-chain denizens (here, bluefin tuna) though our depredations. It’s a nicely written and sharply compelling piece, but quite long. I found myself skimming, looking for the high points. And going back and forth to my email and the project I was working on in between the skimmings. Even being aware that I was giving short shrift to the article didn’t stop me from being pulled in multiple directions. This is your brain on chunking.

We Did Survive Elvis
I worry that Carr’s right, that our scanning for immediacy, our appetites stimulated to hunger for the new, will result in an ever-more shallow analysis that is self-reinforcing. I worry about distinguishing the important from the trivial, if I can only absorb either in chunks. But then I think I’m carrying the same hoary “The End Is Nigh” sign that my parents carried because of Elvis in the 50s, and that their parents carried because of jitterbugging in the 30s and that Fred and Wilma Flintstone carried because the latest stone wheels had sidewalls.

Ahh, well. I hope richer thought will survive, amidst the ephemera. I was heartened to read Molly Ringle’s recent grand prize winning entry for the 2010 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, awarded for the composition of the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels:

“For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s gerbil.”

Molly doesn’t believe in that chunking stuff; had she sallied forth and written the full novel, I’d judge it would be 1,456 pages of delicious prose. Heck, Raskolnikov might have even made it in there too.

PS I know you skimmed this post, but I forgive you. I did too.

The Intimate Relationships Between Camels, Entreprenettes and Scribes

Appetizers today—but guaranteed tasty. First off, it would probably be completely impractical for you to go off on a camel-back desert caravan trip. (Not only would it be dusty, but you those animals spit! Accurately!) Much easier, but still authentically atmospheric, would be to download my pal Joel Canfield’s free Arabic trance travel tune. It’s a kickoff for his psychotic, er, I mean exotic adventure he’s going to make with his family. Joel is an ace business consultant, writer, musician, raconteur and camel driver, as you can see by checking out his stuff.

Entreprenette Am I
I’ve extolled the virtues of using HARO for entrepreneurial purposes before. Here’s an example of what I mean: I answered Sarah Shaw’s Entreprenette Gazette’s HARO inquiry about how to manage time as an entrepreneur, and she put my answer (along with those of 128 other desperate climbers) in her latest blog post. Of course, that entrepreneurial answer comes with the answerer’s business/blog URL to boot, so your pretty business face is front and center. (I guess being there makes me an entreprenette too. If it allows me to wear a funny hat, I’m in.)

Answering HARO posts is one of those win-win situations that can drive traffic to your site. (Note: I’m tiring of that limp “win-win” phrase. Maybe it should be “chocolate brownie-chocolate brownie.” Or “shot o’ bourbon-shot o’bourbon.” Well, I’m working on it…)

Scribd Ain’t Just for Misspellers
I blogged previously about using EzineArticles to circulate your promotional publications (you remember, the ones with USEFUL content) around, and here’s another venue: Scribd. Scribd is, according to their breathless About, “The largest social publishing and reading site in the world.” It’s got books, essays, poems, how-tos, how-not-tos and publications of all kinds, for sale or for free. It’s easy to set up an account and upload material. I uploaded the two free writing-related PDFs I offer here, as well as another free how-to writing essay. Again, you can include your contact info, pitch and URL in your pub, so you can spread the good word—and even multiple words—of your work around the ‘electronic universe.

Watch out for those camels.

Don’t Muzzle (or Muffle) Your Writing Voice

I was thinking of the issue of “voice” in writing recently: you know, your writing voice, that whiff of brimstone or reverberant cello note or cracked teeth and swollen tongue that stamps your writing as having been issued from you alone. You’d never mistake Donald Barthelme for Ernest Hemingway; the word blossoms gathered in Virginia Woolf’s garden would have flowers not found in the window-box plantings of Joan Didion. So your writing and your writing voice shouldn’t be confused with Schlomo Bierbaum’s—it should be yours alone.

One of the things that made me think of a person’s voice was a literal voice: a few months ago I saw Ricki Lee Jones in concert, and was so struck by her uniqueness as a performer (and possibly as a person). She was cuckoo and mesmerizing in the best of ways on stage: banging on the roof of the piano, exhorting the other players, talking to them in asides during some songs. She played a lunatic version of Don’t Fear the Reaper(!), beating out a slapclap on the top of her piano. The performance was so Rikki Lee Jones: singular, eccentric, passionate, moody. You wanted to be around her just to see what she might do or say (or sing) next. Her voice was hers and hers alone.

Your Writing Voice Is There for the Singing
When you’re developing your writing voice, you might be so painstakingly wrapped up in expressing yourself JUST SO that you drain the blood out of your writing, pull the plug on the electricity of your ideas. You might have read an essay by Pico Iyer or a story by Alice Munro or a novel by Cormac McCarthy and you might be trying so hard to source and employ the rhythms, humors and tics of those gifted writers that you spill onto the page a fridge full of half-opened condiments that cancel each other’s flavors.

Be yourself behind the pen, be the channel between what cooks in your brain and what courses through the keyboard. Even if that self is one day the grinning jester and another the sentimental fool, be fully that person, unmasked, on the page. Maybe you grew up in a slum in Mumbai or have pied-à-terres in every European capital, maybe your adolescence was a thing of constant pain, maybe you never made a wrong move, maybe you never moved at all—it should be in your writing, whether in its proclamations or its subtext. Your voice is all the Crayons in your box.

A Voice, and Its Chorus
Of course it’s no monotone: Sometimes I might write about Sisyphus and sometimes I might write about drool (and sometimes I might speculate whether Sisyphus drooled while pushing the rock up that endless hill). By that I mean your short stories might have a female narrators, male narrators, be set in a tiny town one time and in a howling metropolis the next. But you still must find the voice—your voice—for that story.

I like to write essays that often take a humorous slant, but at the same time, that isn’t the limit or restriction I put on my own expression. I published a piece on not knowing my father, and another that discusses (among other things) never finding out what happened to my high school girlfriend after she vanished in Colombia, and both had a tone of pathos. That pensive tone is also one of my voices, and its sobriety doesn’t cancel the chiming of my comic voice. So your voice might be part of a choir.

Getting Gritty About Grammar
A friend of mine who is putting together a “private university” recently asked me if I would teach a 16-session class on grammar, because of what she perceives as the lamentable state of comprehension of language structures and their underpinnings among the young. Now I could probably do a decent job of that, though I’d definitely have to brush up on some grammar formalities and its seemingly obscurantist vocabulary. But after thinking about it, I decided that it just wasn’t right for me. It wouldn’t be an expression of my voice, like teaching a class on writing an essay or developing a character would be.

The tools are important indeed, but the authentic voice is transcendent.

Shoot Your Audience! (Er, Shoot for the Correct Audience.)

The image above was part of a pretty elaborate direct-mail piece sent from the NRA to me for a sweepstakes in which the grand-prize winner takes home 24 guns. (The first-prize winner would receive a paltry 10 guns.) I did have one pressing question when I received the piece: What, no grenade launcher?

No, the real pressing question was how the ##$@#!! did the NRA get my address? Granted, I was tempted, because with that arsenal, I could finally control the gophers in the veggie garden, but unless one of those dreadfully liberal entities that I’ve supported in the past, like Greenpeace or the Natural Resources Defense Council were selling their mailing lists to all comers, I wondered if this was just fishing on the part of the NRA.

Which brings me to the two-pronged subject prompted by the 24-gun salute: permission marketing and know your audience. I won’t go deeply into the permission marketing angle so clearly enunciated by Seth Godin, but in essence, its message is: Don’t send crap to people who don’t want it.

The concept I want to look at a little closer is Know Your Audience. Now, I have no objection to legal gun ownership, obtained through licensing and registration. (Though the open-carry Starbucks people have it all wrong: they should have open-carry acetylene torches, to warm up the coffee.) But I am not the NRA’s audience, and they wasted their postage on me. It’s the same sort of concern I have from the proliferation of catalogs (particularly at Christmas time) from companies from which I’ve never ordered anything. Sometimes these catalogs are hundreds of pages long, and obviously expensive to produce. The scattershot-mail effect doesn’t acknowledge the simple adage of knowing your audience, your tribe.

Ask About the Audience
When I am asked to write a tech or operations manual (I am working on one and probably beginning another soon), one of the first questions I ask is, who is the manual for—who is the audience? That tells me what the slant or tone—formal, salesy, explanatory, light, crisp, storytelling—of the piece should be. Obviously, as a writer you’d ask the same if you were writing an ad or a brochure or a sell sheet. I didn’t ask clearly enough about audience for a recent radio ad I wrote, but nailed it on the second round, after getting the elaboration.

I had a brilliant film teacher at college who was irreverent, flippant and profane. She gave me a lousy grade for a paper that was good, but limp. The next one I wrote, filled with snarky comments and casual asides (but still on topic), got a stellar grade. Know your audience.

I used to write manuals for Maxis (SimCity, The Sims) software, and was encouraged to put in a whimsical tone to the “Click here. See that. Click there” instructions, and from later user comments, found out how much our audience appreciated it. About two months ago, some guy who read a manual of mine for a Maxis product from more than 10 years ago emailed me to explain a joke I’d written in the manual. (Yeah, some funny joke—the guy took 10 years and still couldn’t understand it.)

Anyway, I actually dug the NRA sweepstakes offer, because I don’t get the chance to win 24 guns every day. If they include a cannon with the next offer, I’m going for it…

Bonus Book Love
While you’re mulling over the consideration of which of your 24 guns you’d have pointing at the front door, and which at the back, I’ll change tack entirely. Being more of a books than a bullets guy, I saw a HARO request from the Power of Care site soliciting stories of book love. (No, not porno book stuff—what books you love!) I wrote mine on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. You can see that brief testimony and many others here on the site.