Finding My Voice

Writing is easy.

Reading is hard.

Whenever I sit down to write I have this vision in my head of what I’m trying to say and I see and hear the words fall into place. Somehow between the vision in my head and the words on the screen something disappears. The ethereal vanishes, replaced by the mundane, the pedestrian. I find that I am not the writer I wish to be.

As a storyteller I have influences. As a writer I have those I look up to. I believe I have chosen my models well over the years. My ur-model was Arthur C. Clarke, writer of some of the most influential works of science fiction in all of the human experience. There was a stretch where I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby at least once a year. For long years I read very little fiction. During that stretch I found Lawrence Weschler, quite possibly the finest essayist working in the English language today. In recent years I’ve found John Scalzi, the two gentlemen who collectively call themselves “James SA Corey,” Seanan McGuire, NK Jemison, and Cat Valente.

Oh, Cat Valente. Every time I want to feel wholly inadequate as a writer I just have to go back to The Habitation of the Blessed and The Folded World. Those two books are brilliant, sublime, and about twenty miles down the road from the scariest thing I have ever conceived of attempting to write. Every time I hear someone say that women are somehow inferior writers my only response is, “Cat Valente.”

The problem is that for a long time I sat down to write and expected to see in my words something of the words of my heroes. I expected to hear in my voice something of theirs. I so rarely did. Those words that seemed so melodious and alive in my head seemed so lifeless on the page. I saw myself as merely a worker, smashing the English language to the page with a blunt instrument instead of an artisan, carving the finest words the ethereal spaces.

This is the gradual process by which writing becomes a chore. This is the way writing becomes hard.

This is why having had a blog for all these years might be the best thing for me. I fought it. I hated it. At times I quit for months at a time because writing seemed like such a waste.

Now I look at so many things I’ve written in the past and notice something I couldn’t possibly bring myself to admit at the time. I can hear the voice I ignored for so long. I can hear my voice. I can now, finally, appreciate my voice.

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So let me tell you about the absolute most important writer in my life.

When I met Tawni Waters she wasn’t a best-selling, award winning author. She was like me: someone in transition and looking for something bigger. That quest put both of us in Madison, Wisconsin at the Wormy Dog Saloon on the verge of winter and the verge of one of the biggest changes I would ever experience in my life. At the time, though, it was just a Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers show.

I was on a mission that night. I wanted signed posters from the band as a gift for a friend who was also at the show. So I told my friend that I was going to go over and talk to the hot girl to shake him for a while. In retrospect he should have assumed I was up to something, since I am not the guy who goes and talks to attractive women at the end of rock shows. But he was also drunk, so there’s that.[1]

I did end up talking to her. I ended up finding out she knew all the guys in the band. She ended up dragging me out of the Wormy Dog Saloon to make sure that I completed my mission.

That was how I ended up sitting next to future bestselling, award-winning author Tawni Waters on a metal staircase behind the Wormy Dog Saloon in Madison, Wisconsin. We talked about god and religion, which was a preoccupation of mine at the time and an important topic to her, seeing as how she was a PK who had had her own crises of faith by that point in her life. I mostly remember that she didn’t have shoes and it was really cold.

I think I fell in love with Tawni that night. I’ve always assumed it was because she was inaccessible and I’ve always preferred to love women who won’t or can’t love me back. I was just some blip on her radar as she chased around the country, following her dreams and running from her demons. Looking back on it now, though, I think that I also saw her as what Amy could have been to me and in those days I was still mentally locked in on Amy and all of the hopes and damage of that brief moment in my life. Tawni was, at least to me, all of the things that Amy could never allow herself to be.

None of that matters anymore. What matters is that in the years since I’ve proven to be something slightly more than a mere blip on her radar and she wrote a book called Beauty of the Broken that has received crazy amounts of acclaim from the sort of people who can change an author’s life forever.

The last time I saw Tawni was at Schuba’s where we were both going to a Sons of Bill show. I’d just finished reading Beauty of the Broken and I told her that. She told me that she only wanted to hear my opinion of the book if it was good.

I asked her, “Do you remember the night we met? We sat out in the cold and talked about god and the universe and stuff that really mattered. Your book took me back to that moment. Reading it was like talking about god with you.”

Apparently that was a pretty good answer.

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The last time I heard from Tawni was in December. My life these last two years has been hard, harder than anything I’ve ever wanted to face. I was increasingly coming to realize that my only way out of the miasma of my existence was by fighting and the only way I know how to fight is through writing and storytelling but taking that path is scary and all the other paths I saw before me were also scary and there was exactly one person I knew who could tell me exactly what I needed to hear.

It was the wee hours of the morning and I had drunk way too much Anti-Hero before not being able to sleep and was just staring at my ceiling. So I grabbed my phone and sent Tawni an email in which I attempted to ask her a simple question. That question was, “How did you figure out how to be brave?”

I sent the email and immediately regretted it. Who asks a question like that? Who sees that sort of question and thinks, “Yeah, I need to respond to that idiot?” Because, you see, I’ve always seen myself as someone who has no better purpose than as the background in the lives of others. I was, after all, a blip on someone else’s radar. And the someone in question in this case was someone who has become significantly more important since I met her. So why should Tawni bother to respond to me?

About six hours later I got a response from Tawni. It was longer than my original email. It was personal, it was emotional, it was beautiful.

I’m almost afraid to share any of her response. A lot of it was very personal and, in my opinion, off limits. But there are a couple parts that I think matter deeply.

You have a beautiful heart and soul and mind, and you are a brilliant, witty writer.  Let you out.  That’s all you have to do.  Be brave.  People will hate you.  I promise.  I could say who gives a fuck, but you will give a fuck.  This is the road less traveled because it fucking hurts. Most people want to do it.  About 2% are brave enough to try.  It’s easier to stay safe and invisible.  Of course, you die without having lived.  That’s the price you pay for the safe life.  So live brave, kid.  That’s all I got.

That, right there, is quite possibly the best and most important thing anyone has ever said to me.

————————-

I can’t say it’s specifically because of that night, but I’ve noticed something. In the last few months as I’ve decided it’s time for me to truly pursue my dreams of making it in the world as a writer I’ve looked back at some of the things I’ve written and I’ve realized that some of it, a lot of it, is actually quite good. As I’ve pursued the rewrite of Nightwind I’ve realized that the original wasn’t a failure of imagination or plot but a failure of scope and patience. The 19 year-old that set out to write the next great sci-fi franchise wasn’t as far off as the 20-something who read it later thought.

I’ve also finally decided what winning looks like. It looks like Nightwind as a movie or an anchor franchise on SyFy once they’re done turning The Expanse into a brilliant television show. That was my dream all those years ago before I spent more than a decade telling myself I was not, I could not, be good enough.

Because there’s one great truth I’ve realized as I’ve set out to re-write Nightwind. I’m writing it in much the same style – I’m hearing much the same voice – as I had all those years ago. I’m just writing it so, so much better. Fifteen years ago I already knew who I was and what story I wanted to tell and how. In the time since then I’ve honed my craft and learned how to be patient and build a world rather than just go running off to tell the story. I’ve learned that if the world isn’t there the story doesn’t matter.

I guess, then, that it’s been less about finding my own voice than learning to pick out my own voice. I’m not just some voice in the harmony. I’m more than capable of standing out front and telling a story that demands to be heard.

———————-

[1]Also, I kind of am that guy, I guess. In the following two years there would be a brief pursuit of an attractive woman at a Peacemakers show in Fort Worth and meeting a really attractive woman at a Flogging Molly show in Dallas on the eve of my decision to move back to Chicago.

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