Walter E. Washington Convention Center | February 11, 2017

Episode 152: I Did It My Way: Writing Who We Are

(Kevin Young, Celeste Ng, Melissa Stein, Ed Falco, Roxane Gay) What is this writing voice we’re always hearing about, and do we need one? Does a unifying vision or voice just happen, or is it something we work at? And once we've established a style that feels like our own, how do we avoid pigeonholing ourselves? How can we counter pressures and expectations—internal, cultural, racial, gendered, genre, professional—and just write? Five respected poets and prose writers will demystify, and perhaps remystify, how they stay true to themselves.

Published Date: August 2, 2017


Speaker 1 (00:00:03):

Welcome to the A W P podcast series. This event was recorded at the 2017 A W P conference in Washington dc. The recording features Melissa Stein, ed Falco, Kevin Young, Celeste, Nick, and Roxanne Gay. You will now hear Melissa Stein provide introductions.

Speaker 2 (00:00:27):

Great. We're going to get started. Hey everybody. How are you holding up on the last day of the conference? You still look like you have some energy. That's pretty good. Take a deep breath because you're in the home stretch. You'll notice that neither Susan nor lean nor Luis Alberto Ora is up here. Neither of them can make it to a w p. We are super excited to have Ed Falco and Roxanne Gay. So rockstar all star panel. Yes. And I'm Melissa Stein, your friendly neighborhood moderator. So over the last few weeks, I've Googled writer's voice as one does when preparing for a panel. One's moderating and I got hits like this. Writer's voice, what it is, and how to develop yours, how to discover your unique voice, 10 steps to revealing your writing voice. 25 things authors should know about finding their voice, like everybody wants this voice thing, it seems like.

Speaker 2 (00:01:28):

So one of my favorites is the true voice of a writer is the nameless fire that burns inside turning up the heat, licking at mind and heart until it becomes unbearable to wait even a single moment longer before putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard. Oh my God. Yeah. That's from a blog called Suddenly Jamie. And there's also plenty of contradictory info. The writer's voice is the expression of you in capitals. You on the page. Your voice is all about honesty. It's the unfettered, non derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes coming through. In every word you write, it's about peeling away the layers of your false self. That's Rochelle Gardner, who's a book agent. But the critical fact to remember says Steven Pressfield is that the writer's voice is an act of artifice, crafted by the professional to achieve a specific effect in a work of the imagination.

Speaker 2 (00:02:28):

It's not the real writer's voice, and if you try to find your own, you'll drive yourself crazy because you don't really exist. So contradictory. So the last quote I'll read here is from Susan Orlene, who obviously is not here, but I'll read a quote from her. So she'll be with us in the room. Sometimes you think you have a voice, but then it changes on you. And she says to find your voice. Unless you're a crazy genius, you work your way through a bunch of phases. At one point I was committed to writing the tightest in the world. Every sentence was locked in, like that kind of carpentry that dovetails a joint into the next. Now when I see that I react so negatively, it seems so phony to me. As I got more confident and grown up, I felt that I could keep people paying attention or bring them back in, not just by locking each sentence to the next, but by moving more toward writing the way I talk. I began to think of writing as being, telling a story at a dinner party, learning to use timing, how much detail to tell, how much not to tell. I was moving towards something that was a little subtler, a little braver. So today we're going to be betting these ideas around about voice and style, how we get them, whether we need them, how not to get stuck, and also how to negotiate pressures and expectations that we feel both inside and outside to sound a certain way or to write a certain way

Speaker 2 (00:03:56):

Or write certain things. So our plan is that each of us is going to chat for about five minutes about an aspect of this topic that's close to our hearts, and then we'll have a round robin discussion, and then we'll take your questions for a while. So to make things easy, we go alphabetically. Does that make sense? Yes. Very unimaginative. But there you go with first name or last name. Oh, good one. What do you think? Last name. Last name. Okay. So I'm going to full bios. Full bios are in, I can't figure out last name. Young full bios are in the program. So I'll just do really quick publication bios. Ed Falco's latest novel is Tufts. I forgot to update your bio. He's the author of three other novels and two short story collections. Did I

Speaker 3 (00:04:44):

Forget something?

Speaker 2 (00:04:44):

That's good. That's good. Okay. Roxanne Gay is the author of an Untamed State Bad Feminist, so fun to say, difficult Women and Hunger. Celeste Ing is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel, everything I Have Never Told You, and New book. New book, new book coming out. Little Fires Everywhere. Little Fires Everywhere. Kevin Young is the author of 10 books of Poetry and Prose, most recently book of ours. And I'm Melissa Stein, author of Rough Honey and an as yet untitled book coming out next year from Copper Canyon Press. So we are going to start with

Speaker 3 (00:05:19):

Ed. Oh, I thought we were going to do it the opposite.

Speaker 2 (00:05:21):


Speaker 3 (00:05:26):

Stand up so they can see everybody. Yes. I'm going to talk real quickly about voice from probably a little bit different perspective than the others are. Voice is one of those things that's different for different writers in different contexts. Poets often talk about voice and fiction writers too, as a way of finding a kind of signature, a kind of approach to language that is very much their own and is uniquely their own about fiction. Writers often talk about voice in terms of their character's voices, which is something sort of the writer, but not the writer. And every fiction writer knows this moment where a character comes to life and it's as if it's somebody animated but different from you on the page. And suddenly the story takes on a life of its own. You're always waiting for that to happen As a writer, you're waiting for the story to develop its own life and its own voices and something you can follow rather than make happen.

Speaker 3 (00:06:21):

So I'm going to talk a little bit about what is that voice, that voice that seems so other that seems to almost like another person has suddenly appeared out of these characteristics that you've created and this situation that you've created. Because it's not magic, it does feel magical again, and I know I'm talking to an audience of writers, so I know you know what I'm talking about. It feels magical when this voice starts speaking to you, but it's not. It's you somehow appearing in a voice that's not you. So it's me and it's not me. So what is my relationship to that other voice that suddenly appears on the page and takes over a story, takes over a narrative. The last time I did a panel with Melissa, we were talking about violence in writing and I was talking about how an act of violence can sort of rip a hole in the fabric of your life.

Speaker 3 (00:07:14):

And one of the instruments for making yourself whole again, for putting yourself back together again is writing, put a stitch together that rip in the fabric. And then I talked about a novel that I was unsuccessfully trying to write since 2007 when there was a massacre at the school where I teach and 33 students were killed. And I was trying to find a way to approach that story, but I just never could. Every time I tried to write it, it just was dead on the page. And then about a year and a half ago, I started writing kind of aimlessly, not knowing where I was going about this night when all of the trees on my neighbor's property seemed like they were all falling over. It was a night of heavy rain in the Nor Easter and two of them fell onto my car and crushed the crushed the hood.

Speaker 3 (00:08:07):

That's the real world, and I use that as starting place for the story. But in the writing of this character appeared named Angel Meso and Angel came out into the kitchen and saw his neighbor's trees on his car and got furiously angry, got really pissed, and that voice was suddenly just completely alive to me and took over the story. And I realized very quickly that angel was going to kill his neighbor. And that angel was really kind of crazy and getting crazier. And when I realized that, I realized that, oh shit, now I'm writing this novel that I've been trying to write for years and I've kind of given up on writing. I was writing a novel from the perspective of the killer, from the perspective of the shooter, which is something I would've never dared attempt. It really happened entirely on its own. So where did that character come from?

Speaker 3 (00:08:54):

It's not magic me somehow I'm making it happen, but it doesn't feel like me. It feels like somebody entirely different from me. I'm not crazy. I'm not going to hurt anybody, but this guy was. So in order to explain that, I want to jump back a little bit to another story I wrote years earlier called Tulsa Snow. In that story, there's a guy stuck in an airport and he's at a coffee shop and he's grounded. He's going to have to spend at least a night there in his snowstorm. And at a very attractive young woman comes over and sits next to him and confident and she begins chatting with him. And at one point she notices that he keeps picking up her language. Like if she says awesome, he says Awesome. If she says dude, he says Dude. So she looks at him and says, you have no character.

Speaker 3 (00:09:47):

And the moment she said that this character came alive to me, this woman who is completely different from me has nothing. I mean, I just don't know how I found this character. She really came alive on the page and in the progress of that story, they wound up in a motel room together and she shows 'em a picture of herself. And in this picture of herself, she looks completely different. Her teeth are kind of misshapen, her skin is sallow, her hair is stringy. She looks nothing like the attractive young woman who he was talking to. And she explains that she has simply rebuilt herself that she has had surgery and she's done well and paid attention to herself cosmetically. And she sort of changed everything about her. And that one really macabre moment in the story, she takes her dentures out and puts them on the night table, which freaks him out.

Speaker 3 (00:10:43):

So the story progresses, things happen. But what is my relationship to that character who seems so odd and so strange to me? So I'm not going to do, I don't like confessional moments. So I'm going to do this in a hypothetical. What if this author was raised by an emotionally abusive parent? And what if this author had spent most of his life sort of rebuilding himself, sort of reconfiguring himself, making himself the person that he wanted to be? Well then maybe this character who appeared out of nowhere, maybe she's an aspect of himself that he just hasn't been thinking about, and maybe through the story there's a voice speaking to him about something he really should consider. So she's totally different. She's not him, but she is him. She is in the way a story works in the way a dream works. You experience something in the dream that seems to be created outside of yourself, but it's not magic.

Speaker 3 (00:11:49):

It is being created by you. So let's flip back to Angel Meso, my mass shooter. Let's imagine that the narrator of this novel, again, hypothetically, is kind of really pissed at the world and some part of himself is furious at the world, but he has safely buried that part and in a healthy way, put that part away, locked it off in a corner of himself. Well, angel meso, then this crazy person who's going to go on a violent spree and killing people is connected to that violence that he keeps, that he keeps buried. And so then magically here I am writing about something I almost always wind up writing about, which is the violence in the human heart, especially in the male human heart. But I didn't start out there. I didn't intend to go there. This is something that just arose out of the voice of the character.

Speaker 3 (00:12:50):

And I would argue for that most writers, especially fiction writers and characters, this is probably why we keep writing, to listen to those voices that appear magically in our story and seem have to have nothing to do with us, but in fact are some aspect of us that we get to think about and we get to explore through the act of telling a story. Few things are worth the kind of alone time writers spend dreaming in front of a screen, in front of a screen or on front of a piece of paper. But that listening, that listening for those voices, maybe that's really the essential act of a writer. Okay, thank you.

Speaker 4 (00:13:49):

I'll just talk from here. I'm tall. I'm often asked about voice and how I use my voice and how I build my voice. And in truth, I don't know that voice can be defined and that's why we see so many definitions of it. But I also think it's this kind of thing that we obsess over and overcomplicate my voice is simply who I am. And I try to build my voice by being honest. And that's a difficult thing because I think by nature people are liars. We lie to ourselves, we lie to the ones we love. We lie about small things, we lie about big things. And so when I'm writing, I'll allow that to be the one opportunity where I'm going to tell the truth. A very good friend of mine, I was going on the job market several years ago and I was nervous and he was already a faculty member and I said, what do I do?

Speaker 4 (00:14:52):

How do I get this job? And he said, you have to just be yourself because faculty jobs are forever and you either want to be yourself for the next 20 years with these people if they hire you, or you're going to end up having to be the person you pretended to be at your job interview. And I'm not that good of an actor. And so I decided to fuck it and just like whatever I'm a do me, I have piercings and tattoos and I will wear a suit at this interview, but you will never see me in a suit again. And it worked. And I also decided to take that tack because around that time is when I started writing nonfiction. I decided to just be myself and to not hide anything and to believe that no one was going to read my work, which is a very elaborate delusion that is becoming increasingly difficult to uphold. But every time I write, I still tell myself, oh girl, nobody's going to read this. You're fine. And in that it's like I have a secret and I'm putting that secret on the page. And my mom always likes to say, a secret is something only one person knows. And so I allow myself to believe I am the only person who knows everything that I'm writing, and that allows me to be my most authentic and my truest self. And that's what really allows my voice to emerge.

Speaker 4 (00:16:14):

It's also I think a way of allowing myself to be seen and allowing other people to be seen. I think when you find a writer who has a strong voice, you feel like you know that writer, even though you may only know what that a writer is allowing you to know. And you might also find moments of recognition for yourself. And so the other aspect of voice for me is about seeing and being seen. And that's all I have to say about that.

Speaker 2 (00:16:49):

I'm feeling deeply relieved now because Roxanne and I also basically trick myself into writing everything by saying, no one is going to read this. That is how I got myself to write. My first book was convincing myself, nobody's going to see this, so it doesn't matter that this thing is not coming together. And it was only about when reviews started to come in that I realized that that was really not at all true. So I'm relieved to find someone else who says that I'm going to come at the idea of voice in a slightly different way because I think often when we are talking about voice, we're really sort of conflating two things. We're really conflating style as in the style of the words you have on the page, the diction that you use, the language that you use, the structure and timing of your piece, and this sort of underlying ethos, for lack of a better word, of what you are writing, the substance of what you're writing.

Speaker 2 (00:17:37):

I started off as a kid, as a poet, I read a lot of Victorian things. I wrote a lot of flowery language. And when I started writing fiction that came along with it. And so I sort of thought, well, this is my style. This is my voice. I like elaborate metaphors. I like beautiful rhythm, and I still like all of those things. But as I wrote more and more, my style on the page changed. But I think that my voice came into focus because when I think about voice, what I really think of is not that I use a lot of analogies and I use a lot of metaphors, which I do, but I think about it as what I'm actually concerned with in every piece I write, whether it is my fiction novel or short story, whether it is a tweet that I'm sending, whether it's an email that I'm writing to somebody, I feel like the voice is sort of like Roxanne said, who I am and not just bound to the words that are on the page.

Speaker 2 (00:18:36):

So to make this a little bit more concrete, I wrote this novel and when it came out, my publisher told me that I should be on Twitter. And I actually really liked Twitter as it turns out, but I wasn't sure how much I should be myself on Twitter. And I thought, well, I don't want to be one of those writers who's always being very political, even though I am political myself, I thought, well, I'm going to not talk about politics. If any of you follow me on Twitter, that's going spectacularly. Not in that direction right now. But I sort of thought, okay, I'm only going to talk about writing stuff. I'm not going to talk about my family. I'm not going to talk about my life. I'm not going to show you pictures of my food. I only going to be about writing. This is a literary Twitter account.

Speaker 2 (00:19:24):

And I soon realized that that was not possible for me because all of those other things that I mentioned, my family, my life, the stuff I eat, the weird people that I eavesdrop on in the cafe, those are all parts of who I am and they are things that I'm interested in. So what my voice actually comes down to, I think is not about any particular character and is not about any particular rhetorical device, but is about empathy, is about understanding. It's about trying to look at surfaces of things and then get under them. And it's about the things that I care about. So it's about race, it's about intersections of identity, it's about women and the way that women get treated. And so all of those things. Now, I feel like however my style changes, I feel like my voice is always going to somehow be on the frequency of those things. I can say more about this, but I wanted to put out there the idea that voice, especially across different kinds of writing, is about a lot more than the words that you're using. Thank you.

Speaker 5 (00:20:35):

Hi, I'm Kevin. I'm short, but I'll dare to sit. Okay, voice. It's such an interesting thing. I'm sorry. I'm thinking about Twitter because I love both you and Roxanne on Twitter who I follow, but Twitter is an interesting place. It's only voice, but it's all voice. So we can talk about that later because I really wanted to think about the way, I don't really believe in voice. I think unless it's plural. I mean, I think that we all have voices both in our heads and in our lives. And in a way, I think what I like about Twitter, for instance, or the cacophony of voices after the election, what I didn't like about Twitter was the cacophony of voices. For me, I'm really interested in, I suppose if we can make it plural, the voices we have and those we want to inhabit. I think those are ways that voice can be useful. And obviously thinking about silencing and some of those questions I do understand and the history of voice. But I also would propose that for me, especially in thinking of poems, but also prose, that tone is very important. And I try to talk about tone in my classes if I can, and think about, say, jazz and the way that tone and jazz is distinct, it's a way of improvising.

Speaker 5 (00:22:09):

Jazz gives us an example of an art that is constantly remaking itself right in front of us, but then also sometimes because it's wordless demands a certain rigorousness, a rigor of emotional testing and risk. And this in itself, I think can be quite political. I've been thinking a lot about this in terms of Dante, it's a hard shift I know, but especially because I got asked to write these poems responding to Robert Rauschenberg, the painter artist made 34 illustrations for Dantes Inferno. And Robin Costa Lewis and I were responding to his paintings, which are responding to Dante, which someone read to him a canto at a time. And it was the same translation that I grew up with the John Chii translation. And I read Dante when I was a teenager in a class in Topeka, Kansas of all places, which didn't feel quite like hell.

Speaker 5 (00:23:15):

But it was infernal in some ways, at least in the summer. But having to go back to my, I think a lot about voice with him, because I was thinking about Dante as a kind of contemporary when I've been rereading this book, which is here, it's all the cover's off. But I think of him as sort of incredibly relevant. Now he's writing almost 800 years ago, yet he's still amazingly current and thinking about Dante as a contemporary. But he's vengeful, he's political, he's petty, he's damning, but beautiful. He puts his enemies like eating each other's heads in the eighth circle, but his sympathies sort of shine through. He is almost tender to the lovers who die with each other or the suicides. And there's something sort of pagan and passionate about it. But he's also trying to write the voice of his ancestors is literary ancestors. And I was thinking a lot about that, that Dante's putting himself in his own myth and when the idea of voice as being sort of me and not me. And that's I think what Dante is trying to do. And he's also invested in, we were talking about, you were mentioning magic earlier, like magic and not magic. And I think the voices he captures, the many people who speak are really important in this regard.

Speaker 5 (00:24:57):

I was going to read some, but I'll say that for later.

Speaker 2 (00:25:10):

So I just wanted to point out that there are these purple bowa feathers all over the floor here. So someone in the panels before us had a really good time. I

Speaker 5 (00:25:20):

Thought it was like a Muppet exploded or something. I

Speaker 2 (00:25:22):

Dunno. Yeah, it's that day. It's the third day of the conference. Anything goes. All right. I'm just going to say a few words for my part. The whole writer's voice thing drove me nuts when I was just starting to take my writing seriously. In retrospect, I have no clue how I decided to go for a master's in creative writing. I'd never taken a poetry class, and at the time I was just writing and I thought I had a really distinctive voice as one does in one's early twenties. And in some ways maybe I did. But in others, I think it was just a hodgepodge of influences of people that I've read, prose writers, both poets and prose writers who I loved and copied incessantly because that's how many of us start out is with what we love. So in grad school workshops through all my poems, going through that rather rigorous ringer of rationality that workshops can be, I felt like I dispensed with some of my more gratuitous tendencies and learned some accountability to the reader and felt how not to make every poem a confessional poem, that kind of thing.

Speaker 2 (00:26:29):

The most memorable advice I received from a poetry idol who was the reason I went to this program was that I should write fewer poems about boyfriends and more poems about lizards and Gandhi. I had a poem with a lizard and Gandhi in it, that's why. But the reason I'm talking about this is I feel like along with learning some solid skills and getting a wider variety of exposure to poetry, I let myself lose some of my openness and my meanness. All this crazy rule breaking I was doing or thought I was doing when I didn't know that there were rules or what the rules were. And what spun out of that is that not long after grad school, after being again exposed to all this wide world of poetry, I started thinking, what did I like this middle class suburban chick have to say about anything ever?

Speaker 2 (00:27:22):

Why was my voice important among all these other voices with far more compelling, urgent, culturally significant things to say? And went through a whole complex about this and that stuck with me for years. I mean, I didn't want to write about my own life, nothing. First person confessional, you name it. I was just wrapped up in my own and these maybe imaginary others' expectations about what I should or shouldn't write. And every time I sat down to write, I still felt those faces around the workshop table who were knowing what I was going to, knowing what they were going to say about what I was writing before I even wrote it. And it took x number of years to get out of that and feel and sound like myself again, whoever that is, that's another story. But I also remember for years, people who I met who heard me read for the first time would go, oh, I can't believe your work is so pastoral.

Speaker 2 (00:28:16):

I thought you were this hip urban poet type. And as if what we write is who we are in person, where did that come from? So maybe the main problem I have with the whole writer's voice and unifying vision or project or theme book or being recognized in a certain way is I often feel like I sound like a different writer from woman poem to the next, because I write mostly at residencies and sometimes there's six months in between and I'll have totally different obsessions or concerns or completely different style and in a different place. So in the manuscript for my next book, I have, when you look at the poems bumping up against each other, there'll be these short, tight, dark lyrics next to this longish talky hipster poem. I did outgrow the confessional poems, I think. So I don't think there are any of those, but it kind of feels like multiple personalities within a single book.

Speaker 2 (00:29:15):

And trying to arrange those in a manuscript is really challenging. But I also chafe at the idea of having some sort of recognizable single style or a project or a subject, because for me, the excitement and the pure manic joy of writing is just sitting there and seeing what is going to happen and having no idea what's coming out of the brain. So I rarely start with an idea. I just want to see what's lurking there, put it down, and then see what spins out. So I have the opposite problem, which is wondering whether my work is recognizable or coherent from one phase to the next and thinking what do we owe the reader, which is maybe something we can talk about as the years go by. It's felt like less and less of a problem, thank goodness I still feel some pressure to talk about my work in a certain way or fit it into a framework or say, here I write about this and you have to fill out those applications for things.

Speaker 2 (00:30:10):

But is that my job to do that? I don't know. It's an interesting question. Just a couple other short things. I find it fascinating to think about what makes writers recognizable, especially really diverse writers and those who change drastically over time. I think one of my favorite examples is comparing Louise Glicks first books, first few books with her later work or current work where she does those tight, fierce, percussive, sometimes really angry vivid poems, comparing those with loose, sparse, abstract mythological, and you put them next to each other, you're like, holy shit, this is so different. And she even distances herself from her, the early writing and the introduction to the first four books of poems. So the last thing I wanted to mention is that if we're semi neurotic as some writers are, a few of them maybe are insecure, I dunno, we'll always find things to be anxious or worried about at whatever stage in our careers.

Speaker 2 (00:31:11):

So I always thought when I had a book come out, I would feel bonafide and feel like, Hey, and I can write whatever I want and this is going to be great. But it was the opposite. I didn't have more confidence when I was alone on the page. I got blocked for several years. I had all these bizarre questions, what if the rest of my poems don't live up to the poems I've already written? She wrote some good stuff, but what the hell is she doing now? It's totally different. And it got harder to submit work for journals like, oh, well, if they expected something then I give 'em something else and it really sucks. And she won this prize and oh, she's really awful. Now I don't know that kind of neurotic stuff. So if a few people are reading my work, should I be writing about things that I think are more weighty, like say the political situation?

Speaker 2 (00:31:59):

So Kevin's comment about what is political speaking out is political. So there's different ways we can look at this and not get ourselves wrapped up and that kind of thinking. So again, we can second guess ourselves until the cows come home and I now know about myself that only rarely can I start with an idea of something that I want to write and execute it in a successful living, breathing way that surprises either me or the reader. The more freedom I give myself, the weirder and stronger and truer and more passionate I think the poems are. So ultimately I think I have to just write what I want to write or what happens to come out and try to inhabit it fully and be grateful for it, and then hopefully find a way to celebrate whatever that is. So thanks. Great. So I'm going to throw out some questions for our in trip panelists and we're just going to have a conversation. So the first question is going to be how intentional are you about voice or style? I got to say I love awkward silences too, so we're not cutting those off.

Speaker 2 (00:33:18):

Alright, well, I will go, which I guess I would say that I am not intentional when I start off, but I know when I'm finished because whatever it is that I'm writing, again, whether it's a tweet or if it's a piece of my novel or whatever feels like it's what I wanted to say in some ways, I think out loud on the page. And a lot of times I'll write something and I'm like, this doesn't sit right with me. And a lot of times again, it's not because of style, it's because it's not in the right spirit, it's not generous or in some way doesn't jive with this sort of inner tuning fork of who I am. And that's a very hard thing to define. But there's somehow, I think if you can get the idea of what kind of person, this is getting to be a very sort of squishy comment, but if you have a sense of what kind of person you are and what sort of things you believe in, there's, that's your guidepost of whether that's your voice. And so for me, that is never something that I sit down to, but that's always the final test of whether I've gotten the piece right or not, or whether it's finished or not. I don't know how others feel.

Speaker 5 (00:34:32):

I guess intention is tough because intentions go awry. Thankfully, for instance, when I was thinking about hell, which I have been a lot since November, I just think, well, what does it look like now? I mean, does it look like now? And so I was trying really hard to bring all these things in that were from the current moment when I was trying to write these Dante esque poems. And then I realized I can't make that work. Trying really hard to do that is the worst way to do that. But instead I started thinking about, well, what does limbo look like? What does it mean to be in a place where people are, who aren't really being punished but they're there because I don't know, we're too young. And I started thinking about Black Lives Matter. I started thinking about Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice, and I started thinking about what it would mean to walk into that room that's empty and kept.

Speaker 5 (00:35:37):

And that wasn't so much intention as emotion and thinking about that transformation or that space as an actual space as opposed to one that I had to fill with events, or not even emotion, but facts if that makes sense, wasn't as effective as thinking about what does it mean to feel that way, which is how I felt in some way having a young son worrying over. But the way to express that worry was I guess more like empathy or sympathy or trying to conjure that voice that was inside rather than trying to describe something. And I feel like intention, you can end up in a kind of, I mean to do this, I mean to say that, and it can still suck. I mean that would be, you can't do that when you're trying to honor a memory. How do you write something as big as you want? And I think you have to go small in order to do that. And voice is one tiny part of it. But the larger part is I think the empathy and the form.

Speaker 6 (00:36:45):

Anything from the,

Speaker 3 (00:36:50):

I love writers whose voices are distinct and are kind of turn them into a character. If you read Gertrude Stein, you're reading Gertrude Stein, it's just nobody else who writes like her or a contemporary writer like George Saunders whose voice is so unique. But another approach is an intentional approach is to try to disappear from the writing, to try to write a prose that's like a window through which the reader sees stuff happening. So my intent usually as a writer is to try to be as invisible as possible to try to be as invisible as possible. And I don't know that I always succeed at doing that, but that's what I try to do. So it's sort of a different approach to voices, to not have a voice as an author so that the characters can have a voice and the story can have a voice. I don't know if that's possible, but that's the intent. It's what I try to do.

Speaker 2 (00:37:51):

Okay, so next question. As a recognized writer, what are some of the expectations or pressures or responsibilities you feel when you face the page and how do you approach or subvert them?

Speaker 6 (00:38:04):


Speaker 2 (00:38:05):

Expectations, pressures and responsibilities.

Speaker 6 (00:38:10):

Okay, there you go. Tell us.

Speaker 4 (00:38:14):

Well, increasingly I feel a lot of pressure when I face to page because

Speaker 4 (00:38:26):

When you have a book that does very well, people then expect everything you write after that book to be a replica of that book. And I've in the past seven years, so I hope the fuck I've grown. The thing is no matter what you read of mine, you're going to recognize that. I think as the work of Roxanne Gay, I write across fiction, non-fiction comics, film, and it's all there. My voice is there, but when I faced a page, I always want to write what I want to write. I don't want to think about audience, but I do feel a certain amount of pressure increasingly to write to make sure I'm not disappointing the people who have only read bad Feminist, a lot of people don't even know I'm a fiction writer first, which it is the way it is. I can't control that. So it's just a big challenge.

Speaker 4 (00:39:21):

And when I read the work back to myself and it doesn't sound right or feel right, I know that I'm trying too hard to fulfill some amorphous expectations that I'm assuming the reader has, and that's when I know I have to go back and change it. In the end, I always change it to make sure that I'm just writing what I want to write at this point in time and trusting my readership to come along with me and to appreciate that I'm growing rather than expecting me to do the same old thing over and over. I hope that I'm writing a better essay today than I did in 2010. And so ultimately that's what I hold on to in terms of making sure that my voice is consistent in that it's recognizable, but also making sure that I'm growing and changing and trying new things.

Speaker 2 (00:40:06):

I feel similarly in that I had a first novel come out and do fairly well, and I have a second novel that's coming out and part of my concern is, well, it takes place in a different era. There are different kinds of characters. The first book was about a mixed race family, the second book, most of the main characters are white. There are similar concerns underlying them, but I sort of thought, okay, are the first books readers going to follow along to the second book? And I think there's a lot of trust there, not only in yourself, but as Roxanne is saying in the reader that the reader is going to come along with you. But I think that part of that is the same for anything that you write, that you are aware that there is going to be a reader, but you can't think about that while you're doing the writing, which is the sort of impossible task of not thinking about how it's going to be received.

Speaker 2 (00:40:59):

And that's harder and harder I think if you put work out in the world and you have a dialogue with readers in some public way to not think about what they're going to think about whether this is what you want to be writing about. And I wish I had an easy answer for that. I'm very bad at pulling down the blinds and not letting the eyes of the world in and not letting them into my head. But again, what I keep going back to is to ask myself what I'm really concerned with in this story, if this is really a story about secrets that people have or about the difficulties of communication. And I feel like that's the thread that sort of when I read it, if it feels right to me, it's usually because I've tapped into that sort of a larger underlying concern. I dunno if that makes any sense.

Speaker 5 (00:41:56):

Maybe I have something to say. It's funny, I just

Speaker 5 (00:42:03):

Lost my train of thought. I just am finishing a nonfiction book and I think that is so different. I was thinking about what you were saying about what you're afraid of. To me it's not like being known or something, which for a poet doesn't matter much, but it's much more to me, there was a moment, I've been working on it for four or five years and it's about liars and hoaxes and they seemed all around when I was finishing the book, A one a week, three a week now. And that started intruding more than anything. It was almost the world, but then also the stack of research I had done in the past drafts and I would have to go away and just take off for a few days. And I felt like that was more the competing voices, the sort of other writers, the other noise when noise can be really fruitful I think, but sometimes it can get in the way, especially a finishing and finding if not your voice, than the tone that you want to strike.

Speaker 5 (00:43:08):

And when I first started this book, the tone was really sort of glib and mocking and I found that by stepping back just a hair and not showing all my cards and just relating what say crazy story happened, I in PT Barnum or whatever, it was a way of thinking about it and not showing your cards and then revealing sort of more a mirror that you could see us in. And so that is hard to do to step back when you have a strong feeling about a thing, especially a nonfiction piece. How do you describe so well that it's clear what your tone is, but you're not revealing all.

Speaker 2 (00:43:54):

What's the worst advice you've gotten about how to sound or who to be as a writer?

Speaker 4 (00:44:07):

Well now the worst advice I've gotten is the worst advice I think a lot of women and marginalized writers have gotten, which is I've had many people tell me to write more about

Speaker 4 (00:44:22):

Race when I write about race all the time. So I don't know how much more I could do it, but when I get the worst advice I ever get and I get it consistently is to write only about identity as if I'm incapable of writing anything else. And that's incredibly frustrating. A lot of times women are only allowed to be experts on women and people of color are only allowed to be experts on diversity and marginalization. And people seem to think that that's the magic ticket to publishing and it's incredibly offensive and it's incredibly pervasive. And so I always try to work against that and offer the kinds of insights on the issues that matter to me that I want to offer regardless of what people are expecting. So that's what I'm always working against.

Speaker 2 (00:45:23):

I feel like oftentimes advice that I get is not often couched as advice and is couched more as expectations or one of my favorite things is when people come up to me at conferences and events and they say, I read your novel and I thought that you'd be this really serious kind of angry person and you seem really nice and actually kind of funny. And I kind of like the idea that they had an idea of what I should be writing about. And likewise, a lot of times it's not advice, but I get people saying, you seem to have a lot of strong opinions, especially for an Asian woman. And I go, yep, you sure do. And so I guess that's not so much advice as much as sort of fighting against what people expect. And I think that takes in some ways, a lot of faith in yourself to believe that what you have is fine regardless of whether it's what people thought you were going to be writing.

Speaker 2 (00:46:18):

And so I think that to a certain extent, I write against that on purpose a little bit, but it's also, I think maybe it's part of the long-term group work of dispelling the notions that there are certain kinds of writers that like Asian writers are going to write about Phil piety and I don't know, very delicate rituals and that black women are going to write angry voices or whatever all the stereotypes are. I think that the more writers there are who are embracing what they want to write, the more we'll see that many writers write many different kinds of things. And maybe it won't be such a surprise when you get someone who isn't doing what you thought their group was supposed to do.

Speaker 3 (00:47:00):

I think a lot of the fiction writers are advised by agents and publishers to write for a market, to write to a market, and that's about the worst advice you could possibly get as a writer. It's a prescription for being a bad writer. I have a friend who's actually, he's a formalist poet. He's been a formalist poet since he was a teenager when he, a guy named had met w h Den at a young age and had started writing formalist poems and he wrote all the seventies. He kept writing these formalist poems, these villain ELs and these sestinas, which nobody would touch, nobody in a million years, but he just kept writing what was his work, and I think he said six books out in the last seven years because the world changed and the world came back around to him and got interested in formalist and formalist poetry. So you write what you need to write, you don't ever write for a market.

Speaker 2 (00:47:55):

I guess I want to add something else, and I'm sort of thinking this through as I go, which is that especially I think for writers of color, especially if you ethnicity or your background is sort of queued in your name, a lot of times I think the expectations start even before people open the book. And so I was thinking about the comment about sort of disappearing into a voice, into a character, and I was thinking, oh, I had never thought about that before. And I think one of the reasons is that's not always an option for everyone. If I, with the name Celeste ing, which I think telegraphs immediately that I am non-white, start writing about characters and there are no Asian people or there are no people of color in the book, people start to wonder, well, how does she know this? Is that okay?

Speaker 2 (00:48:47):

And it works the other direction too. If you see the author's biography and you start reading their book and it doesn't match what your perception of that group's voice is going to be, you never have the option, I think to try and say, oh, and this is pure ventriloquism. This is not me at all. There's always going to be that sort of uneasy interaction between who you are as an author, who the reader perceives you to be as an author and who your characters are on the page. And at some point I think that the voice that ends up working for you is the place that sort of allows you to inhabit both of those or the place where those two things sort of intersect. And I'm still trying to figure out what that is, but I think when we talk about advice, again, advice is always what people think you should be doing. And this is the cliche, but I don't think that anybody can know what you should be doing other than you. Great. Well, I think we'll open it up to some audience questions if you have some question in the back. Yes, you in that,

Speaker 6 (00:49:54):

Sorry. Later,

Speaker 2 (00:49:56):

Maybe later. Are there questions about content? Are there questions? Yes. Hi. Over here.

Speaker 6 (00:50:01):

Hi there. I wanted to ask, so what advice do you have to writers in maintaining keeping your voice alive as they transition?

Speaker 2 (00:50:23):

Okay, so the question is, what advice do you have for keeping your voice alive when you're making the transition from one genre to another genre or one form to another?

Speaker 4 (00:50:36):

You guys look at you are fantastic. The key thing is to remember that narrative is narrative. And a lot of people, I mean their idea is a difference between fiction and nonfiction, unlike some people believe there are two different genres, but you just have to focus on storytelling. Don't overthink it. I think focus just on storytelling and let the story carry you. And I don't mean that in a woowoo type of way because I'm not a woowoo type of person, and yet when I write, a lot of times people ask me, I visit a lot of universities and I actually teach at a university and people ask me, what are my craft habits? And I can't articulate them very well because I sit and I write and I do think a lot about my writing and I do read a lot and learn and so on.

Speaker 4 (00:51:32):

But when I just sit and write, my best writing comes when I just don't think I just write. And I think you don't want to think because one of the biggest challenges is that you are worried about how to carry your voice over. I don't think you need to worry. I think if you just relax, which is easier said than done, and just write the story you want to write, trust yourself and trust your craft and trust that your voice is going to come through in what you're doing. There's not a thing that you can do. There's not a formula that you can apply to ensure that you're going to make that transition. But I think that you are the only person who can narrate the world like you, whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction. And so you just have to trust in that.

Speaker 5 (00:52:21):

I love what you said. That's great. I would add sort of a lyric perspective just because I came from poetry and write essays and I've taught, say the lyric essay, a form that I think is some might just call an essay or something I call a prose poem. What's interesting to me is it confound some of our notions of genre though, not of sort of truth and nonfiction, but just of genre. And so I don't know, I think also by starting with thinking of voice, you might end up in a tougher place than if you start thinking about what do I need to say? And I think the harder thing can be, you can get to a point in a poem or in one's practice where you get good enough, you could probably put anything in a poem. And knowing what is better as an essay is more the question, how do I decide on what is an essay?

Speaker 5 (00:53:10):

Because that you have to make choices of, and for me that sort of sustained examination is what the essay can do. It's an attempt. It's a try in a way that a poem can be open-ended and unresolved and musical and its resolution can be musical. Now you can steal some of that for an essay. I think especially the best. I think some of my favorite essays are by poets, whether it's Langston Hughes writing sort of manifesto or Gwendolyn Brooks novel is incredible. And how do you kind of pick, and I think you have to do the picking and decide and then also go with the choice. And maybe later you can change it if it's not hitting exactly right. But I think that trusting that instinct is part of the process.

Speaker 2 (00:54:13):

Next question. Right here in the front,

Speaker 6 (