How to find your voice

And there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” — Mary Oliver

In my workshops for new writers, we often discuss the importance of finding or developing a “voice.” As William Zinsser points out, it’s as simple (or as difficult) as this: Your voice is who you are.

Early on, most of us hear a cacophony of inner critics and advisers inside our heads — former teachers, co-workers, neighbors, spiritual directors, family members, and friends. Which makes it hard to distinguish between what others expect of us and what’s in our own hearts.

Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” gives us clues along the way. It’s one of my favorite tributes to the authentic life — and it brings shivers of recognition each time I read it aloud in class. –CL

THE JOURNEY
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations;
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

— Reprinted from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press); 1992

— Top photo by Cindy La Ferle; taken at the Grand Rapids Museum during ArtPrize 2011. —

Coping with a crappy review

Criticism is something one can avoid by saying nothing and doing nothing.” — Aristotle

Seven years after its publication, my collection of essays on home and family topics scored its first negative review on Amazon.

The reviewer, who identified herself as a copywriter and was brave enough to include her full name and city of residence, found my writing style “rather bland” and my topics “so-so” or uninteresting. Ouch.

Making its abrupt appearance in my “Most Recent Reviews” column, the two-star review splashed a small but indelible stain on my Amazon page. Never mind that the other reviews, many of which were written by fans of my long-running newspaper columns, were five-star praise fests. Never mind that the book had already won several press awards.

And never mind than I’ve been writing professionally since 1984 and should be accustomed to criticism (not to mention rejection letters) by now.

That one crummy review from a copywriter in Atlanta threw me into a ridiculous dark-blue funk that lasted a couple of days. In a fit of self-doubt, I even grabbed a copy of my book and scanned several pages for incriminating evidence of “blandness” and boring topics.

In any event, the review provided a much-needed lesson in humility. But before I could cool off — and yes, I did cool off — I had to Google the reviewer’s name. I had to figure out how she’d managed to stumble on my seven-year-old book — and why she felt compelled to knock it down a few stars. I was half tempted to email her after discovering we had a loose connection through a professional writing group.

Instead, I did what most writers do when they realize they’ve been spending too much time alone with their computers: I turned to a few trusted colleagues who always know how to set me straight.

“Bad reviews are part of the risk of getting our work published,” one of my editor-pals reminded me. “And that’s why we all need to keep growing thicker skin.” In other words, if we’re going to put our stuff out there, we must learn to accept a few hurled tomatoes along with the roses and the press awards. Furthermore, if we’re willing to listen up, one piece of honest criticism can do more to improve our game than a dozen accolades.

Mean-spirited criticism is more about the critic and less about the work under fire.”

The crappy review also led to an online discussion about how to take (and give) criticism — an invaluable skill, no matter what your profession. To master this skill, you must know the difference between constructive criticism and mean-spirited criticism.

For starters, constructive criticism is always very specific. It includes concrete examples of what didn’t work along with reasons why the reviewer thinks your writing fell short. Even if it’s unsolicited and painful, constructive criticism can be a terrific learning tool.

On the other hand, mean-spirited criticism (or “sniping”) is more about the critic and less about the work under fire. Dead giveaway: The word “I” appears too often throughout the review or critique. “I don’t like Hemingway’s writing,” for example, isn’t nearly as specific and informative as “Hemingway overplays the declarative sentence.”

Mean-spirited criticism might be the product of a foul mood or professional envy. Or maybe the critic doesn’t share your passion, in which case your work doesn’t necessarily fall short, or stink.

The reviewer who dissed my book didn’t cite examples of what irked her, nor did she suggest what I could have done to meet her standards. But she got me thinking about why I failed to engage or entertain her.

And that’s why a bad review can be an unexpected gift or a wake-up call. If we’ve been writing and publishing for a while, especially, a negative review challenges us to keep improving and refining our craft. Or, at the very least, to stop being so complacent.

William Faulkner once said that real writers and artists “don’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, and the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.” And I suppose there’s some truth in that.

Still, it’s perfectly normal to feel bruised after getting hit with a rotten review. Scores of authors who are far more prolific than I am still wince when they get negative press. Or, as Danielle Steel once put it, “A bad review is like baking a cake with all the best ingredients and having someone sit on it.”

All said and done, serious writers get over it, then gather their new “ingredients” and get back to work. — Cindy La Ferle

— Detail from an altered book collage by Cindy La Ferle —

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Victoria magazine

Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other.” — Walter Elliott

Speaking at a writers’ conference last year, a magazine editor fielded questions from an eager audience. Inevitably, a new freelance writer asked, “What does it take to break into national magazines now?” The editor’s answer: “Good old-fashioned perseverance.”

It’s true what they say about perseverance. It really pays off. So I’m sharing the following news not in the spirit of boasting — but to remind you to stay the course and keep trying, whatever goals or dreams you’re pursuing.

Several times over the past decade, I’ve tried to break into Victoria, one of my favorite shelter magazines. In the meantime, I published pieces in other national glossies and kept submitting new work, but the Victoria byline eluded me. (The magazine folded in 2004, then resumed publication in 2007.)

Over a year ago, I wrote a garden essay from threads of a talk I gave at a regional Master Gardener Society meeting. With high hopes, I submitted “The Art of Midlife Gardening” to Victoria. And then I waited.

Months passed — which isn’t unusual in this line of work — and I nearly forgot about the piece. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when Victoria‘s managing editor contacted me last year to ask if it was still available for publication in the March/April 2010 issue. That issue is now on the stands, and my essay’s on the back page. When I found a copy today at our local Barnes & Noble, I did a little happy dance right there in the magazine aisle. –CL