Voice Lessons: on becoming a writer

I am often asked to explain what made me become a writer. I had no choice: writing chose me. The culture and creed into which I was born expected obedience, and worse, silence. I did not want silence. I thought the study of philosophy and literature would satisfy my need for speech, for thought, for exploring possibility. It didn’t.

Stories began pushing their way forward as I approached my mid thirties (a late start for a writer), and in the stories I found a place to shape the issues of interest to me. I think of a short story as a way of asking a question: a way of making the reader see both sides or all sides and leaving the reader to ponder a resolution for herself. Of course, I see now that the act of writing fiction was initially a place of coded silence for me: I could hide behind and be protected by a story’s lack of closure and by the ambiguity of metaphor.

I am very interested  in that hybrid in which many women are working: that boundary between the invented and the remembered. It may sound strange, but I am often more interested in the ‘how’ than the ‘what’ when I am writing. I want to put the reader inside story — to have the reader experience complexity and be unable to escape the feeling and thought swirling through the story. In the novel Sing Sorrow, I wanted the reader to experience the emotional and intellectual effects of growing up female in a rigid authoritarian religious tradition, in a patriarchal tradition. The narrative of living inside this tradition has rarely been told in a female voice. I wrote 300 pages, and I feel I only made an outline.

To dramatize the inner experience of characters is difficult. I read dozens of other fictions in order to understand my options, to see how other writers had accomplished this. I wrote this novel for my MA in Creative Writing, and it wasn’t until I was nearly finished that I realized this “connected collection” of short stories read as a novel. There are some things in creative work—most things, actually—that you only discover by moving forward, blindly at times. You have a general sense of what effect you want to create on the reader, and you stretch yourself in every direction in order to achieve that effect. I call this the “art” of writing, i.e., that process by which you can affect the reader (or viewer, or listener).

I worry sometimes about the emphasis on subject matter (the “what” of the text) that the proliferation of memoir may have created. Memoir can be the most eloquent and elegant of the arts (just look at those poetic and ancient memoirs called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). But if the writer is oblivious to everything but subject matter, the text may fail to accomplish its full potential. I want to see in every text—novel, poem, essay, letter, short story, fragment, as well as memoir—that the writer has deliberately made choices regarding language, repetition, rhythm, sound, structure, metaphor, paradox and balance—to name only a few of the tools an artist has at her disposal. I deplore, of course, the deliberate falsification of facts in a text claiming to be true to lived experience, but memory itself is a combination of perception and selection which creates a “truth” of its own. And always, I fall back on Grace Paley’s brilliant line: Any story twice told is a fiction. I could lecture for an hour (and sometimes do) on what I assume are the implications of that line, but I’ll save that for a class.

I have taught classes of women since l990. Breaking the silence, resisting an internal censor, speaking in one’s own voice—these are tasks ideally suited for writing collectively as women. The first class I taught was called Li(v)es of Girls and Women after a novel published by one of Canada’s most prolific writers, Alice Munro. In that text, the mother says: ‘There is a change coming in the lives of girls and women, and it is up to us to make it happen’. I suggested then, and suggest now, that it is not only up to us to make it happen, but to write what has happened and to imagine what can yet happen. I invite my students to write the “truth” in the lie of fiction, and to address (or redress) the lies they have lived or been told. We are always working on the border between the invented and the remembered, and it is that border (referred to by Nicole Brossard as “writing adrift”) that is so interesting and compelling to me in women’s writing.

Women writers are taking liberties with conventional forms, and inventing new forms as well, and it is a very exciting time.I don’t know how a woman can be a writer without contemplating issues of feminism. Feminism invites—no, requires—that we take both our inner life and our outer life seriously, that we take our past history and our present history seriously. That we realize it is up to us to imagine a future, or an alternative. And who doesn’t want to take her life seriously?!

Women writers have always seen written text as a way to “vision” alternatives. To describe our lives, rather than to have them prescribed. To speak for ourselves, rather than to have our experience spoken for us. To invent new forms of text, and new subjects and even new language for text. It is an exciting time to be a woman writer—exciting, and, for many women, dangerous in that finding language for your experience and your desires and your imagination can change your life, as well as the lives of others.

Feminist research has been responsible for many things, including re-reading and re-interpreting historical literary criticism. (I still remember how astonished I was when I saw Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady given a new reading by a feminist critic); for “search and rescue” operations looking for lost texts by women or for unknown women writers (i.e. texts that are out of print or never published or embedded in letters, diaries and religious writings); and for inviting women writers to “re-enter” texts about women where so little is given that imagination has to finish the story. Just think of the Wife of Lot who has neither speech nor a name nor a version of her side of the story, and yet dozens of major poets have devoted at least one page to a story for her her name (or lack of a name) first appeared on a page. Ahab’s Wife, a recent novel by Sarah Naslund, takes more pages than Melville gave to Ahab to write about the wife of Ahab. The Red Tent has satisfied thousands of readers’ desire for “more of the story.”

I am currently re-entering and inventing a legend for a woman of the 14th century B.C.—a woman who deserves a story as large as that which Homer gave to Ulysses. In the absence of women’s full story in traditional texts, we have to invent the stories—another reason why this is an exciting time to be a writing woman. I’m also working on a ‘sequel’ to what is considered a classic twentieth century Canadian novel, one called ‘As For Me and My House’. In doing so, I am emphasizing what is part of feminist writing everywhere—that there is always another side to the story, and that there is no end to story.

And lastly, I am working on a handbook for women who want an introduction to contemporary writing by women, and who want catalysts to use in their own writing lives. The art of writing might be chosen only by a few, but the act of writing as a daily practice is open to all women everywhere.

We know that writing is good for so many things. When done collectively, writing binds us together—a fact which every woman who has ever attended an IWWG conference can attest to. I believe it is impossible to make your “neighbor” invisible once you have heard a portion of her story, and at the annual IWWG conference, we devote almost as much time to listening to the words written by others as we do to writing our own words. The IWWG is, in fact, one of the few places I know of where “writing on site” takes precedence over critique. There is a need for critique, of course, but the IWWG specializes in the first draft, the daring draft, and the never-before-written draft.The invitation to take “leaps of faith” onto the page is a gift to every woman—and teacher—who has attended an IWWG conference.

We also know that writing relieves stress and renews energy; that writing can provide a map for past, present and future; that writing increases confidence, competence and fluency; and that writing provides a written record for the lives of women who have had more written about them than by them, and who, in addition, were often excluded from text by the absence of literacy, time or permission.

Years ago (well 1995, to be exact), I called Hannelore Hahn of the International Women’s Writing Guild during a cold winter in Edmonton, Alberta.  I asked her for the dates of the IWWG summer conference since I was in the process of enlarging a women’s writing program in the Faculty of Extension at the University of Alberta, and I wanted her dates for our information packet. I wasn’t quite sure what the IWWG was, but I did know it was for women and it was for writers and I thought we should know about it up here in western Canada. She asked what I did; I said I taught women writers; she asked whether I wanted to teach at the IWWG summer conference; I said yes, I’d love to; she said Good, we’ll see you in August. It was the shortest ‘job interview’ I’ve ever had. Talk about leaps of faith! I knew little about Hannelore and she knew less about me. I’m glad I took that leap! As I revise this piece in 2016, a piece originally published in the Guild newsletter, I’ve been teaching at the Guild’s summer conference for over twenty years. And nothing could be finer: I am taught by writers as much as I teach writers. To all of them,  I say thank you, thank you!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Voice Lessons: on becoming a writer

  1. Laura L. Kieley

    Eunice, I am back in New York after tearing myself away from Skidmore on Tuesday. As always, you have helped me strengthen my voice and revitalize my writing life. I am so glad you have your own voice online now. Your blog is going to be great and I am looking forward to more posts!

    Your encouragement and guidance over the years have meant more than words can say. Thank you for those gifts. As I write, I bring you with me.

    • Eunice

      Hi Laura,
      I’m learning how to use this as I write…..
      It was great of Brenda to get me started.
      I’m sorry you couldn’t have the whole week, but year by year, you will add an hour!
      Send something you wrote in class, if you like. ..
      Though I must admit I have no idea whether you can through this means….
      I’m just back to Seattle last night.
      Good days all around, xx Eunice Hello to the Twins!

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