I was trying to find a voice. Trying to find my voice.
Was I really a “writer?” No.
Was what I was doing “writing.” No.
I was trying to save my soul. I was in the paper bag of my own insanity and I was trying to write my way out.
Why was I trying to find a voice? I had no clue. If you had asked me, I couldn’t even have articulated the idea that there was such a thing as “voice.”
I was excruciatingly aware, however, not just that my writing was inauthentic, but that I myself was inauthentic.
Every word I wrote screamed of effort and fakery. I was self-conscious. I was full of shit. I didn’t know what I was talking about.
Even when I was writing the absolute “truth,” real events from my real life, the paragraphs came out hollow and phony.
I’d read Turgenev and Hemingway and Henry Miller. Every phrase rang like gold. Even the commas (or absent commas) were perfect. That was them talking. Why couldn’t I do that?
I read Shakespeare, I read Marlowe, I read John Donne. Even when these writers weren’t speaking as themselves, when they were writing in character, the voices sprang from a personality that was so profoundly entered into and so fully realized that it rang even truer than their own speech. The reading experience was hypnotic. It was healing. Even when I couldn’t understand what these guys were saying, I felt my bones knitting just from the pace and rhythm of the work.
Why couldn’t I do that?
Why was my stuff so bogus and so fake?
I used to sit down at the typewriter with Tropic of Capricorn or The Sun Also Rises open beside me. I would literally copy the books, word for word, paragraph by paragraph.
I was trying to experience a real voice, even if it wasn’t my own.
I’ve heard him share this writing exercise in various places and interviews, and I’m a big believer in it too. In fact, I’m an even bigger believer in writing it out longhand, with pen on paper. Yes, it’s excruciatingly slow, but maybe that’s why it works so well. Your mind really absorbs the sound of the sentences, the rhythm of words, the texture of the language when you practice this. It helps you immerse yourself more fully in the writing, at least it does so for someone like me who can have quite a monkey mind.