Why Tried and True Advice Can Doom You

John Wray on when and how to ignore that stuff we've all been taught


 

Two of the most dangerous sinkholes I fell into as a developing writer were very much part of the creative writing dogma of the time, and continue to cause trouble to this day: "find your voice" and "write what you know." Both these hallowed tenets of the fiction workshop can be useful—in addressing certain very specific problems—but they date back to a time when every young would-be novelist in America, male or female, was trying to fit into the Hemingway mold: an issue in Iowa in 1963, much less so in the present. They were drilled into me as a starry-eyed college sophomore by a man I'll refer to as Professor X, a snowy-haired bully in a leather vest (and a pipe!) who smugly informed us, on the first day of class, that in order to stand a popsicle's chance in hell of making it in the profession, we had to write more than we talked. Professor X meant this literally. Many of us wisely abandoned ship at this point; those of us who didn't spent the next three months in a state of steadily mounting self-loathing as we failed to find our one true, innate voice—or decided it sucked—and realized that most of what we knew, at nineteen years of age, was not the stuff Great Literature (whatever that means) was made of.

 

The problem with Professor X's approach, of course, was that it privileged authenticity over invention. It's fine to ground one's fiction in known, lived experience—it's a kind of shortcut to authority, an absolute necessity for all effective writing—but it's just as important to tailor one's style to the needs of the project, whether it be fiction or memoir (or even, for that matter, poetry). We each of us harbor a multiplicity of voices—we "contain multitudes," as Mr. Whitman put it—and we can also invent a new one when the work calls for it. It's the writing itself that needs to be authentic, in other words; not the writer. Once I realized this, many years after college, I was suddenly free to begin, because I'd left my inhibitions behind. "Express yourself!" is the great rallying cry of all the arts—not just of fiction—but sometimes you have to escape yourself, just a little, to create something true. Musicians understand this, and directors, and dancers, and (most obviously) actors: Why has it taken so long for all of us poor, neurotic writers to catch on? Even Professor X, I'm willing to bet, took off his vest before he jumped into the pool.

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John Wray has published three published novels, The Right Hand of SleepCanaan's Tongue and Lowboy, have earned him numerous distinctions, including a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2010 Mary Ellen Van der Heyden Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. In 2007, Granta included him on its list of best American novelists under the age of 35. In addition to writing fiction, Wray is a regular contributor to EsquireSpin, and The New York Times Magazine.