Friday, April 24, 2009

The Dead Cat - How I Found My Voice

Voice in writing is a big deal, yet when you read descriptions of voice in instructional books or hear an editor speak at length about it at a conference, its actual meaning and purpose is slightly vague and elusive.

I found my voice at age eighteen while writing about a dead cat and I didn't even know it at the time. It was a class assignment. Actually, the assignment had nothing to do with a dead cat. We were asked to write a descriptive essay. I had already done that exact assignment at least three times in high school, and the thought of having to listen to students read essays about their desktop or bedroom in great detail was enough to make me want to voluntarily put a pencil through my eardrums. No thanks.

I am usually a very quiet, compliant person. But this was my breaking point, this was where I woke up as a writer. I went home and started bitterly typing a descriptive essay about a dead cat squashed in the road in the heat of summer. It was a joke, a farce. I was certain my teacher Anita Wilkins at Cabrillo College would be appalled and not too happy with me.

Instead of banishing me from her classroom, Wilkins used my essay as an example to the class of good writing. I was shocked. She went through and analyzed it for the class, drew out deeper meaning from my rotting, smelling cat carcass. My cat? Now representative of the delicate balance between life and death? Oh my.

Looking back, I now realize that because I let my guard down for the assignment and stopped worrying about what the teacher or reader would think or expect from me, I was able to be myself and find a unique, genuine voice in my writing. I was writing beyond the words on the page. I was writing from my heart, drawing from personal experience, and feeling genuine emotion. Regardless of my strange motivation to do so, I wanted to give the reader a heavy dose of my experience and have her walk in my stinky shoes for just a bit. This was my official birth as a writer. I guess the story was about life and death after all.

1 comment:

  1. Ah yes, I know all about the "voice." I discovered the power of words when I described a a woman being burned alive for a high school essay. I was 14, angst-ridden, hormone-driven, and disgusted with school. I still have a warm & fuzzy feeling when I remember how my English teacher (an insipid idiot with a fondness for romance novels) vomited during lunch while reading my essay. Must be "in the family."