One morning about a year ago, I had a rather disconcerting experience. After wresting myself from my comforter and pouring a cup of coffee, I sat down to write—as I do most mornings—before tackling whichever freelance writing assignment is owed whichever editor. On this particular morning I wanted to get down a draft of a personal essay I had rolling around in my head for a while, about some time I’d spent in Italy when I was younger, searching for myself and coming up empty handed. I’d had the experience, time had given me perspective, I knew what I wanted to say, and yet, sitting there in my writing chair, a big blue easy I’d lifted from my mother’s house years before, something felt off.
“I am headed to Tuscany because I think it will change my life,” I wrote. Too serious.For a life-changing experience, Tuscany seemed the obvious choice; I’d read Under the Tuscan Sun…” Too irreverent.
“I make for Tuscany because, well, because I am hoping it will change my life.” Too desperate.
As I sat there staring at the words I had written, and not being able to identify with any of them, I knew that the problem lay in the rhythm, the tone—the voice. I couldn’t find mine. “Literary laryngitis,” I thought wryly.
Until then, I’d seen myself as someone with a strong voice. My prose was no-nonsense, sometimes terse, rarely flowery or funny, occasionally ironic. I don’t know if it was any good, but it was mine, and it usually felt right.
What I’d written that morning, though, felt labored, strained—strangely other. At first I wondered if I hadn’t been writing enough, but I knew that wasn’t the case. I wrote daily—not only for myself but also for many others. Then I wondered if that was the problem: the others.
A few years before, I’d quit my full-time associate editor job at a glossy consumer monthly and enrolled at the New School in New York City to work toward an MFA in nonfiction. Though the degree was something I wanted for myself, in many ways my going back to school was more an excuse to enter the world of freelance writing than anything else. The MFA program would give me the time to not only work on my writing, I figured, but also to ply my trade in the rich freelance market of New York City. Writing from home was something I’d fantasized about since I was sixteen and read Joan Didion’sSlouching Towards Bethlehem for the first time. “So romantic to be a writer,” I thought.
But, as I would come to find out, it was also terrifying. I had no idea whether I would be able to get regular work as a freelancer, if I would be able to pay my rent. As I saw it, graduate school was the safety net. Supported by school loans, I’d have two years to focus on the nonfiction that moved me, two years to jump-start my freelance career. At the time, I thought, naively, they’d be one and the same.
At first the freelance work was sporadic—a quick hit here, a longer piece there, trickling in like a leaky faucet. But I kept at it, eventually landing a couple regular gigs and some big-ticket pieces from larger magazines, so that, by the time I graduated, I knew that, with effort, I could make a living. It wouldn’t be an affluent living, but it would be one that I enjoyed. And so, with loan money no longer coming in (and instead needing to be paid back), I began freelancing in earnest.
I covered real estate for the New York Post, indie film for The Independent: Film and Video Monthly, pop culture for Paper, service for Redbook,and on and on. I even wrote celebrity profiles for a horse-enthusiast niche magazine (despite the fact that the one and only time I’d ever been on a horse, I was five and I’d fallen off). My motto was: If they pay me, I will write it. Yet I continued to write my personal essays.
The truth is, I loved my new lifestyle. Every day was different; a real estate story on a New York City neighborhood could have me roaming cobblestone streets in search of the future of a community. A celebrity profile could have me interviewing an up-and-coming actress. A travel piece could have me setting off for a new city. Or a dearth of work could have me in my pajamas generating ideas from the comfort of my bed.
The problem, as I came to understand it, was that writing each of these stories required a different voice. Nearly all consumer publications have their own voice; it’s the contributor’s task to learn how to channel it in order to publish. Though women’s magazines are the most obvious example—there are scads of them, and in order to differentiate themselves from one another, they adopt subtle differences in tone, depending on who they believe represents their target demographic—magazines in all categories use voice to set themselves apart. In the travel genre, Travel and Leisure has a different voice than Budget Travel, which has a different voice than Condé Nast Traveler. Same goes for men’s magazines, fitness mags, even celebrity rags. And if the voice evades the freelance writer, the editor will add it for her.
But in order to save precious time and multiple revisions, it’s easiest to learn to invoke each voice yourself. And thus, when I wrote for Paper magazine, I was hip, my finger on the pulse of pop culture. When I wrote for Happenmag, a relationship site, I had unique insight into both Mars and Venus. When I wrote for the Independent,I was savvy of the indie filmmaker’s struggle. And when I wrote for the Post, I was clever, tongue firmly inserted in cheek. (“Fork Yeah!” was the headline of a recent story on the North Fork of Long Island that I wrote for the paper.)
Of course, I’m not really any of those things. So, in order to come across as an authority—which the job ultimately requires—I researched, I interviewed, I learned, I became the expert. And then, when I sat down to write, I got into character, producing punchy or punny prose, pointed and concise. While this might be a wonderful exercise in the stretching of personal boundaries (great for an actor I would assume), it was contrary to the way I approached my personal work, where I am rarely an expert, my prose more searching. I got into trouble when those voices began spilling into my creative work.
My laryngitis, it would seem, was more multiple personality disorder.
Of styles of writing, William Strunk and E.B. White wrote, “Style not only reveals the spirit of the man, but reveals his identity.” By style, of course, they mean diction, syntax, paragraph length. So what about the spirit of the man—or woman—who constantly shifts between styles? How does a writer keep one persona from taking over?
Searching for answers, I reached out to other creative writers who support themselves with freelance work. “There was a period of time when I was doing a lot of women’s magazine freelancing and I was feeling like, ‘I’m getting lost here,’” said Stephanie Staal, an editor and the author of The Love They Lost, a personal examination of the effects of divorce on her and 120 others who grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s. Travel writer and essayist David Farely agreed. “That’s the big irony of writing, there aren’t really any commercial publications where you can use your own voice, unless you’re super famous…. If you’re not well known then you just have to write like everyone else.”
“Exactly,” I thought, but for every writer who commiserated with me, there was one who couldn’t identify with my experience at all. These are the writers who apparently possess the ability to call up their own voice on command, no matter how many different styles they have already worked in that day.
“When you really own your writing you can do it, switch back and forth,” said Jami Attenberg, a novelist who freelanced through the writing of her first book, Instant Love. “You still resent [the freelance work], everyone resents it because the most fun is always writing the fiction, but you can do it.”
Carolyn See, the author of five novels who is also a book reviewer for the Washington Post, wrote to me in an e-mail. “I’ve always had such a strong voice that I’ve been afraid to kidnap anyone and write a ransom note. They’d know right away it was me, which may be a reason that I’ve been such a bad short story writer. I think the secret to doing nonfiction pieces, magazine pieces, is to find subjects that will fit your voice,” she reasoned. “I guess my advice would be: Don’t take an assignment in the first place if you don’t believe in the premise, don’t try to make your voice over, because it never works.”
Though I admired, even envied, See’s resolve and would love nothing more than to follow her lead, as a young writer (and by young, I mean less established), I simply don’t have the option of turning down assignments. I will do the roundup of this summer’s best sunscreens if asked; I need it in order to pay my bills. See, it turns out, is not unfamiliar with this predicament. “The nadir of my career,” she replied, “was writing a piece—about how making love could keep you fit—during my divorce, when neither making love nor keeping fit had the slightest interest to me. I think that’s when you open the gin bottle and pray.”
But it was Hope Edelman, a personal essayist and the author of four books, including the New York Times bestseller Motherless Daughters, who understood my experience most intimately. “For me it’s an issue of persona: Which hat will I assume today? The persona of competence and personable authority that has command of a subject, or the persona of a woman in the midst of life trying to figure it all out? Those are the main ones I move between, which occasionally makes me feel like a professional schizophrenic,” she said.
Her advice? Compartmentalization.
“If I’m on a deadline or working on an assignment for a magazine or working on a book, I’ll dive into that and stay there for a couple of days or even weeks at a time and then maybe sort of resurface and then go back down under into a different lake,” she said. “But I typically have to stay in one of those underwater environments for a couple of days before I really start producing good writing.”
Great, but as a writer still building my reputation, I often don’t have this luxury. Most days I work in two and sometimes three or more different voices—and that’s ifI’m lucky and the work is coming in.
“You’re just compartmentalizing in a tighter fashion than I do,” Edelman replied. “There actually was a time when I had to go back and forth, when I was writing my first book and I didn’t have enough money to just live off that. I would just go for a walk to clear my head…. I also found that it was better for me personally to do the journalism in the morning and the literary writing at night.”
Though I know that keeping a writing schedule is imperative, I find that all too often I’ll allow a pending deadline to hijack my creative writing time. An expectant editor always seems a higher priority than my essays, which in their nascent stages exist only in my head.
To prevent freelance assignments from subsuming her life as a writer, Staal simply expanded her definition of creative writing: “I try to do a little bit of writing that’s mine every day, even if it’s a letter—just something to keep it active.”
And if those other voices crept in despite her efforts? She just keeps writing until she finds the one she needs. “Once I’m at the end of something I pretty much have a handle on the voice and then I have to go back and squelch all the other voices that came through in the beginning,” she says.
Of course, the hope (the dream really) is that as one grows as a writer, lands more assignments and commands a higher per-word fee, there is a slow weeding out of the writing that doesn’t inspire. And eventually, increasingly, the writer is sought out for her voice. After all, when Parenting commissions a piece from Hope Edelman, don’t they expect the essay to sound like Hope Edelman? In a way, they do, but they also expect her to sound like the Hope Edelman who writes essays for consumer magazines.
“Writing a personal essay for a magazine is different from writing a piece for a literary journal. When I know I’m writing for the editorial eye, I’m taking on a different persona,” Edelman said. “When I write books—that’s the income-generating work. But, on the other hand, there is the kind of thoughtful, contemplative, meditative, literary, personal-essay type of work—you can publish them in a journal and get fifty dollars and three copies for your grandmother. It’s not a viable way to make a living, but it really is the kind of writing that I love most.”
This, coming from a successful writer, made me realize that, barring a bestseller, I, like most writers, will always need to balance the work that moves me, but so infrequently pays, with the commercial work that supports me, and thus will always have to deal with issues of voice. Perhaps becoming a good writer is simply being conscious of the challenges of voice and then making it work.
More and more I am learning how to marry my own, more literary, voice with the voices that are required in my freelance writing. I’ve found that, as I build relationships with editors, I am given more leeway. I’ve been writing for the Post for nearly four years now, but it was only recently that I understood how present I am in the pieces I write, and even further, I notice the stories my editor assigns me are the ones that suit my style, which is, of course, the mark of a good editor.
I still accept every writing assignment that comes my way, but I’m also working harder to write out my own ideas. Ironically, this piece, “Literary Laryngitis,” is one of the first essays I’ve been commissioned to write in my own voice, as opposed to donning the hat of the savvy filmmaker, the urban hipster, the lovelorn romantic, or, heaven forbid, the horse enthusiast. I wrote it as a writer who has struggled, and found, her voice.
As Miles Davis—who spoke in a voice that was always his own—once said, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
This article first appeared in Poets & Writers magazine.