The problem with being a voracious and empathetic reader – that is, one who loses herself in a book, who understands, embraces, incorporates not only the characters but the author as well – is that this absorption can screw you up as a writer. When you learn and love and know and become another’s voice, what does that mean for your own?
Such was the case with Sweetbitter, a novel by Stephanie Danler that may or may not have been autobiographical. The book intoxicated me because it was about drugs and love and wine and New York City – all lovely and frightening in their own rights – but more because her style of writing, with the disjointed sentences and chaotic poetry sprinkled in, prettily ignored the “rules.” It gave me permission to write as I’d always wanted. I saw some of myself in Danler, at least in the perception of her.
“Oh,” I thought. “There can be freedom in this. Fluidity and untidiness are okay. Writing can be as colorful as a Picasso or as dreamy as a Dali even if I’m not an established voice, even if I’m young and inexperienced and kind of bland.” As a lifelong people-pleaser norm-follower grammar-stickler, a weight was lifted.
But then I read On the Road, and the manic energy bothered me. It was too much – I hated the characters and couldn’t catch my breath. I read Bad Feminist and wanted to write as frankly and clearly as Dr. Gay. I longed for my words to sway, to spark realizations, like hers do.
Is what I consider beauty in my writing only fluff and sludge to readers? Do metaphors meant to resonate become tedious? Are my words useless? With freedom comes risks. With risks come failure. If I don’t want to fail, can I still be free?
I think what I mean to say is, I don’t know my own voice yet.