Voice Driven

I was taking the only writing class in which I would ever enroll as an adult, a one-year certificate program at the University of Washington. Mid-year I decided to switch stories, from a plot-driven period piece to a highly autobiographical, voice-driven coming-of-age story. I had never written voice-driven fiction before, but I knew upon starting this novel that it was signaling a new and necessary direction for me. In this class, instead of written feedback, certain students read their work aloud and then received immediate, verbal critiques. When my turn came, my heart was thumping so loud I was worried it might drown out my reading. The novel’s voice was so close to my own I could not bear the thought that no one would want to hear it. I read as if wearing blinders, and when I was done, I drew a breath, looked up from my page, and waited.

First, as always, silence. Who would speak first? It occurred to me then that this moment had as much to do with my classmates’ voices as mine. A critique, in its own way, is like another story offered to the world. What if your critique is no good?

Finally, one woman spoke up. “I don’t get it. Why’s he so upset? Just because his girlfriend left?”

“I don’t get it either,” said another woman. “Me, neither,” said a third. “It seems like a big deal about nothing.” Now it was like watching a wildfire spread. One after another after another spoke up about how they didn’t get it. There was safety in numbers. Soon, half the class agreed the thing didn’t really make sense.

More silence. Then, from the seat directly behind me, Nick cleared his throat. Nick was an experimental sort of writer. Sometimes when he talked, if he was nervous it sounded as if he’d cinched his necktie two cinches too many. In a quiet, choked sort of voice, he said, “I liked it.”

Now, to my left, another woman jumped in. “So did I! I thought it was cool.” Then another fellow: “I didn’t care what was happening, I just liked listening to the narrator.” A new floodgate was open, and by the end of it the class was evenly divided between those who got it, and those who did not.

It was, for me, the absolutely perfect response to my first voice-driven piece. I realized I had enjoyed listening to those people who didn’t like my chapter as much as those who did. It’s always so moving when someone breaks the silence, when believing something is true is reason enough speak.


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. "A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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