When I was in graduate school, my program was creative non-fiction with a focus on memoir. I read lots of memoirs because I wanted to write my own. Of all the memoirs I read, my favorite was The Boys of My Youth by Joann Beard. I loved how everything in her world was alive, from the gravel on the road to the house she grew up in. The descriptions were rich and layered and the tone ranged from wistful to irreverent. When I finished the memoir, I had found my role model. More than anything, I wanted to write like Joann Beard.
As a writer, I felt most comfortable with exposition, but like anyone who has taken creative writing courses, I knew that exposition was BAD. It was boring and lazy, a crutch for hacks and wannabes. In Joann Beard’s memoir, everything was written as a scene with little to no exposition. The reader was placed immediately into the story, sensing and feeling everything along with the author.
I had already put together a list of stories to include in my memoir. With my Joann Beard-empowered voice, I set out to write the story of my first date. I’d written about the event in detail in my high school diary. I just had to convert my description to a scene.
I don’t remember how long it took me to write it — much longer than it should have. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. When I was finished, the piece was heavy on clever rhetoric, but in no way captured the magic of that day, nor did it represent the voice of a fifteen year old girl. I had face the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I could never be Joann Beard.
It was disappointing but in the end, it was liberating. I went back to my high school diaries and studied them. I’d written the diaries the way I thought and spoke. The voice in the diaries was my voice as a writer. And even though there was a lot of exposition, it was thoughtful and funny and sarcastic.
It was a major turning point in my growth as a writer. I learned that sometimes you have to know who you are not before you can decide who you are. From that day forward I have have written with full commitment to my own process. In the end, it doesn’t matter what your style is as long as your reader is engaged.
EXERCISE: If you had to describe your authentic self, the one you keep tucked away for fear of judgment, who would you say that person it? What are his or her secret thoughts? What drives those thoughts? Now write something as that person. Hold nothing back. When you read what you wrote, what have you learned about yourself? Share your revelations below, or share a bit of what you wrote.