Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Losing Your Voice

I don't let my mom read my stories. I once made the mistake of letting her read one, and then for years afterward she used that story as part of the reason why I shouldn't write. Granted, that one story had problems - many problems. The first glaring error my mom noticed was that the medical information was completely bogus. I had made up a disease and put it in my story, and my mom - a very experienced nurse - could tell right away that the disease had no basis whatsoever in fact. Besides that, though, the story didn't speak to my mom. She wasn't enthralled, wasn't thrilled, couldn't see those words showing up on a bookstore shelf.

As you work on your own writing, you want to make sure the negative opinions of others don't cause you to lose your own voice as a writer.

My mom was right about that story - it wasn't good. But I was also in high school, had never taken a writing class, and had never seen much of the world. My experience with "high drama" up till then was getting a D on a math test during cross country season. Everything I knew about fiction I'd learned from books. So when my mom told me the story wasn't worth reading - and, in her own blunt way, that I shouldn't be wasting my life writing stories - I listened. I got angry about it, sure, but I couldn't silence the nagging voice. I couldn't deny that my mom was an avid reader - she was the one who had turned me to books as a child, and she was the one who accumulated stacks of paperbacks that she read while on breaks or on the way to work.

Fortunately (I say now, years later), I was too pigheaded to listen. I kept writing. As I burned out on college engineering and burned out on the extra credits needed to graduate in a new major and as I worked to pay tuition, I still wrote. Much of it, I'm sure, was a wretched desire to prove myself right, as if to show my mom that I could, indeed, make a living writing. And I thought I could, too - I figured I'd write my short stories and get published in science fiction magazines and make an easy $400 a pop. I was young, I was idealistic, and after all the fights I had with my mom about the relative merits of English versus Engineering, I wanted to show that I was right.

I wish I could say I took the right path, but I'm not sure I can. I invested so much energy trying to prove my point that I missed the real point of college. I gave up friends in favor of work and study, and I entirely gave up the sciences that I had always loved. Rather than explore options, I locked myself in to a goal - graduate in four years as a "writer" - and skipped the fun parts of college.

As writers, we have to avoid making the mistake I made in life. Fiction is very much a reflection of life - the stories that we write hold power over the imagination because they represent struggle and conflict at the personal level. Readers enjoy a story that plays with possibility - they want to read about characters who dart off in different directions without a map, and they want to read about

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