Recently, when I was browsing through one of those lists people post on numerous blogs — tips for writers, do’s and don’ts, that sort of thing — I stumbled on a pearl of wisdom that stuck with me. Sometimes I find such pearls among the suggestions that are more common (write every day, write what you know, don’t give up). This one hit home. It was worded something like this: Resist the temptation to write what you think the editors will want to read.
I think one of the toughest things to do, as a writer, is to stay true to your own voice and vision. This can be especially difficult if you haven’t had the validation of numerous publications, if you’ve experienced your fair share of rejection, or if you’ve just read someone’s work that you can tell is so good but is totally unlike your own. The questions inevitably start tripping over themselves in your mind: Why can’t I write like that? How does he/she come up with such lyrical/razor sharp/succinct sentences? How did he/she dream up those unique metaphors? If I don’t write like that, does that mean my writing is bad?
Of course we can learn from the work of other writers, and it’s important to sample different styles and play around with ideas that you pick up from the texts that you read. But there’s a difference between gleaning inspiration from other writers and putting yourself down because you are you, not them. And it’s a mistake to toss out your own style and sensibilities in order to please anonymous editors and readers. I know this because I recently made that exact mistake.
Today I was reading through a few essays that were accepted by a journal that had rejected one of my pieces a few months ago. The work that was accepted was quite different from the piece I had submitted.
When I read one of the editor’s comments on the accepted work, I noticed that she mentioned that the journal, which had been seeking work from women writers, had received a tremendous amount of submissions that centered on some kind of past abuse. She noted the importance of giving voice to writers who had experienced abuse — and of publishing such work — but in the end, she said had to make tough decisions based on craft.
Interestingly, the piece I had submitted had been crafted around a memory of the day when my sister was beaten by a boyfriend many years ago. I was embarrassed, upon reading the editor’s comments, that I had submitted the same type of work that many other writers had submitted. I also wondered if my particular approach to the topic (which had been somewhat experimental) had been inferior to the approach of the other submissions.
But thinking about it a while later, I realized something more. I rarely write about topics such as abuse, and I had never before written about my sister’s experience (she’s fine, by the way, and she prosecuted the man, whom she left immediately). I agree with the editor when she stresses the global importance of both writing and publishing such work, and I applaud and celebrate writers who come forth with their stories in order to break through the dangerous silence that tends to surround these topics. But the truth is that writing about abuse is not where I’m at as a writer and it’s not the natural focus of my work.
In fact, I had written the piece that I submitted to this journal in answer to their call for submissions. In that invitation to submit, the editors had asked for women-centered work and seemed interested in forwarding a political message. Although I’m proud of the way the piece came together in the end, I realize now that it was written from the outside in. Instead of being inspired by something inside me, it was prompted by a desire to produce what I thought someone else wanted. It was not something I would have written without that prompt. Of course sometimes creative writers produce pieces in response to specific requests, and sometimes that process can work. But if you step too far outside your own sensibilities, you’re not likely to produce your best work — or to write from your own voice.
I have since revised and reworked this particular piece into something that I like better (and hopefully something that will find its own home). But this experience was a lesson for me, and that lesson was brought home by that little pearl in the “Tips for Writers” list.
Shakespeare said it a long time ago: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”