Laryngitis of the Page

by Rebbie Macintyre

I lost my voice.

No fever, cough or chills. No stuffy nose or sore throat. I simply lost my voice.

I’m talking about my writer’s voice, of course, and on second thought, I didn’t lose it. I tried to change it, to morph it into something it never could or would be. And in the process, I lost it. For one full manuscript. For two years.

My first book, Cast the First Stone, had been published. I had a contract for my second book, A Corner of Universe.  Both books are for the commercial market, and after a year of submitting, my agent had found a small but respectable publisher.

But I wanted more. My voice sounded “simple” to me. Plain and simple and unsophisticated. I wanted to write in the style of the “greats.” Toni Morrison. Ian McEwen.  I wanted literary recognition. Reviews. To be hailed as an accomplished wordsmith.

That’s when I began to lose my voice.

My campaign of reinventing myself was organized. I read literary authors I admired, writers who had written ka-zillions of words, writers who had delved inside themselves for years and decades to find that unique part of themselves, their voices, to put on the page.

I wanted to be them.

For two years I tried to maneuver my manuscript into a literary voice. I ignored the advice of other greats, like Stephen King, who teaches, “Story is the Boss.” I threw off the worn, torn, simple flannel pajamas of my own style and tried on other writers’ clothes: the clipped, severe angles of one author, the flouncy lace of another, the sparse construction of someone else. I reveled in my new style. I preened. I imagined the critical astonishment I’d receive when everyone read my book. “Who is this writer?” they would wonder. “And why have we never heard from her before?” I wrote and polished to 120,000 words. Whenever I caught sight of that old, simple voice, I kicked it away like I’d kick a threadbare pair of pajamas under the bed. That voice was not what I wanted. I didn’t like it anymore. I wanted something else.

I failed, of course.

Rejections abounded from my initial readers. But where were the accolades? Where was my legion of adoring fans?

I was confused, wandering in a dark closet of words, none of which fit. Everyone else’s clothes looked miserable on me. My story suffered. My delicate writer’s ego suffered. I suffered.

I needed a doctor for my laryngitis. A writer who I admire, who is a manuscript “doctor” as well as a writing friend gave me a prescription: Go back. Re-read what was successful in your own work. Then start again. You’ll be better, she said, because writers get better with writing, the way a dancer gets better with dancing or a painter with painting. Your craft will be improved, but your basic style—the underwear of your voice—will still be there.

I dragged my old flannels from under the bed, beat off the dust devils and put them on. The elastic was stretched; I might be embarrassed to be seen in them. People might not like me in them. The knees are worn through. The pocket hung by one thin stitch.

But they were mine.

I started a new story, writing fast, reminding myself to simply tell the story—and to tell the story simply. My story came naked to me, and I dressed it in my own voice. I re-learned what I’d forgotten: My voice is who I am.  It comes from my life experiences, my philosophy, my view of the world. I cannot invent myself. I can only discover myself.

My 120,000 word literary masterpiece is still in the “bottom drawer”, a good story waiting for me to dress it in my own clothes. One day, I may be able to get it published. For now, I have a solid first draft of my new book, and I’m pleased to report that my laryngitis is cured.

Those two years taught me that I must be me. In my flannel pajamas. Telling a good story the way I, and only I, can tell a story.

I won’t lose my voice again. I’ll keep it with me, polish it, refine it, try to accept and love it like I try to accept and love myself. I’m not perfect, but as Popeye the Sailor said, “I yam what I yam.”

Frayed cuffs and all.

Rebbie MacintyreComment