A reader recently DM’d me this question on Twitter. I started typing a response, but then it got out of hand, and so I thought I’d just post it here.
I’m a relatively new writer [and] I’m really interested in working to get better at this craft. Obviously the biggest part of the improvement equation is reps, and I’m solid there; I write frequently. But I’m curious as to whether there is anything you’ve done to help you develop your style and voice.
-Alex Michael, who writes A Questionable Life
Yes! These things helped a lot:
I went to an orthopedist
I downloaded a lot of music illegally in the early 2000s
I was in a community theater production of Godspell
I got a D on a paper
A woman spat into my mouth in front of a crowd of 90 people
Here’s what I mean.
1. PLUMP YOUR MIND-GLUTES
I have flat feet and bow legs—from the waist down, I kind of look like a Loony Tune. This is the wrong design for a human body, as my feet often remind me, by hurting.
I recently went to an orthopedist and asked her if there was anything I could do to make sure I can still walk when I’m 60. She told me the problem is actually in my hips. They aren’t strong enough to compensate for my goofy legs, so my ankles roll in a weird way with every step, which in turn puts pressure on my non-existent arches, causing them to cry out in pain. To save your feet, she said, buff your glutes.
There’s something profound in that: sometimes the thing that hurts isn’t the thing that needs to be fixed. And if causes and effects can become estranged even in the short distance of a human leg, imagine how hopelessly separated they can get in the infinite space of a human mind.
But if you don’t appreciate that, you’ll treat the brain like it’s a big dumb lump of muscle, as if you can make certain parts bigger just by squeezing them over and over. This is only true for the stupidest, simplest tasks, and is not at all true for complicated, mysterious tasks. To improve at anything interesting—science, law, friendship, whatever—repetition won’t be enough, and it might not even help.
(One of my friends is a clown, and once, when I was watching her practice her routine, I asked her how she got good at it. She said something like, “I got good at juggling by juggling a lot. I got good at being a clown by, as a kid, coming home one day and discovering my dad’s dead body.”)
All that is to say: if you want to get better at writing, maybe the best place to do it isn’t at the keyboard. You’ve gotta go find your mind-glutes. I’m not sure where yours are, but maybe it’ll help if I show you mine.
2. NOBODY’S BUSINESS BUT THE TURKS
I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Ohio. Culture doesn’t grow there naturally; it has to be imported. Fortunately, inside my house were two boxes that could beam it directly into my brain.
One was the television, which gave me terrifyingly not-for-kids content like Invader Zim, a show about a weird little alien trying to invade Earth. On one episode, Zim teleports other kids’ organs into his own body, becoming engorged with dozens of kidneys and miles of intestine. On another, Zim develops a giant pimple that can hypnotize humans. It makes more sense when you learn that the guy who created Zim was previously most famous for a comic book called Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, in which the protagonist has to kill people and paint a wall with their blood or else a terrible monster will escape. (I read not only Johnny, but also its spinoffs Squee! and I Feel Sick.)
The other box was the cable modem. There were a few glorious years in the early 2000s when you could get any song you wanted for free on the internet, except the FBI might arrest you. I became a prolific copyright criminal at eleven years old, using Limewire to nab over 350 hours of music, including the entire discography of They Might Be Giants, a nice weirdo band for nice weirdos. I turned 13 listening to them sing “The spiraling shape will make you go insane”; I turned 20 to the tune of “Look me in the eye // Tell me when you’ll die”.
(I loved TMBG so much that their name is still spray-painted across an entire wall of my childhood bedroom, a matter of much dispute between me and my mom, who lovingly allowed her son to have a taste of freedom 19 years ago and has been punished for it ever since.)
The electromagnetic waves that came out of those two boxes irradiated my DNA and made me Weird. When I was five years old and adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them, “soldier.” At 16, I told them, “writer.” TV and the internet did that to me, and thank God.
None of that has anything to do with writing—it’s not like I learned subject-verb agreement from “Istanbul, Not Constantinople”—and yet it has everything to do with writing, because when I put fingers to keys, that’s who I am, some kid from the Midwest who got shot through with Weird-rays, one part Rascal Flatts, one part corn casserole, one part Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, and my job is to be that person, and to say the words that person would say.
3. HEY SOUL SISTER // AIN’T THAT BUCKMINSTER
Even when you are a certain way, sometimes it’s hard to be that way, because it seems like being some other way would be better. Don’t write how you write; write how they write in The New Yorker, all pretty-like. They win awards for it, you know!
The antidote to this is, I think, being in a youth production of Godspell in 2006. There, an eager, young director, who certainly did not aspire to direct youth community theater in Sandusky, Ohio, will teach you how to do Baggy Panties Iron Pelvis, which is an exercise where you walk around like you are wearing baggy panties and have an iron pelvis. You’ll do trust falls, unironically. The director’s friend will visit from New York City (which is very far away, and mystical, and mainly known to you through the song “NYC” from the musical Annie, which you have been in twice) and he will teach you how to do improv, and you’ll look silly doing it, and so will everyone else, and that will be all right.
(You’ll play Buckminster Fuller in an opening song called “The Tower of Babel,” which does not appear in the movie adaptation of Godspell, nor the official cast recording, nor most stage productions, because it is not good. Your big solo will go: “MAN IS A COMPLEX OF PATTERNS, OF PROCESSES.” A decade later, you’ll be a groomsman in a castmate’s wedding.)
This, also, has nothing to do with writing, and everything to do with writing. If you can do something stupid like portray the inventor of the geodesic dome in a 70s musical, and if this does not cause lasting tissue damage nor permanent pariah-ship, and instead causes lifelong friendships, then what’s so scary about looking dumb?
4. GOD TRICK OR GOD TREAT
So great, now you’re yourself, and you’re not afraid about it. People are gonna love you, right?
No. Some people will not like you at all. Developing a style and a voice inevitably means pissing someone off. There are lots of people out there and they don’t all like the same things, so becoming less generic will give somebody something to hate about you.
Finding your voice means figuring out what you wouldn’t mind being disliked for. You have to find some way of being where, if someone came up to you and said, “I don’t like the way you are,” you would say, “That’s all right, I still think this is the right way to be."
I found mine in my junior year of college by disappointing my professor in a sociology of science class. I despised that class because it made me read stuff like this:
Vision in this technological feast becomes unregulated gluttony; all seems not just mythically about the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere, but to have put the myth into ordinary practice. And like the god trick, this eye fucks the world to make techno-monsters. Zoe Sofoulis calls this the cannibal eye of masculinist extra-terrestrial projects for excremental second birthing.
I secretly hoped the professor had assigned some academic gobbledygook as a test, and I would pass it by showing up to class and declaring, “This week’s reading was a bunch of gobbledygook!” and the professor weep with joy. “You are the professor now,” she would say, “Finally, I can move on.” And she would ascend into the heavens, her earthly mission completed.
But no: when I got to class, everyone pretended like this was not only a totally normal thing to read, but that it was insightful and interesting. In my final paper, I let my feelings rip. "Sociology has much to say about science, and some of it is useful,” I began. I went on to point out that sociologists had focused on one tiny sliver of scientific activity—mainly, journal articles—and so they had missed most of what scientists actually do:
Scientists, however, do much more than putter around their labs and ignore emails from undergraduates, but the sociology of science doesn’t have much to say about it. Scientists give talks and consult for the government and sit on committees and perform in secret faculty improv groups and call their friends on the phone and tape Marmaduke comics to their lab doors and order pizza online and drive cars and have affairs […] Determining what science values by parsing science’s most official and highly stylized forms of communication is a bit like trying to figure out a minister’s favorite sex positions by listening to his sermons.
The professor wrote a single comment on my paper: “This is beneath you, Adam.” She gave me a D.
That stung. I was a nice Midwestern kid (if slightly weird), and I was not used to making people upset. But the gash on my ego quickly healed, and now I’m proud of the scar. Yes, I was a bit flip, but I was also making an argument in good faith, and I stood by it. My crabby professor could have challenged my righteous youthful anger, or convinced me to try understanding the thing I was trashing before trashing it, or she could have at least appreciated that I felt something about her class, but she instead gave me equivalent of a thumbs-down and a fart noise. She was telling me, “I don’t like the way you are,” and that was okay, because I still believed it was the right way to be.
5. OPEN WIDE
I always thought that finding your style was a one-time event, like puberty. You wake up one day with chest hair and acne, and that’s that. Maybe it works that way for some people, but it hasn’t for me. Sometimes I wake up and I’m creatively 12 again; my voice cracks on every third word, and I have an uncontrollable urge to buy Yu-Gi-Oh! cards.
I guess this makes sense: the thing about strengthening your glutes is that, if you stop doing your daily goblet squats and curtsy lunges, your muscles start to atrophy. Maybe the same thing happens whenever you’re trying to hone some part of your mind.
The solution is to have someone spit in your mouth.
I was doing improv shows every week at a theater in Boston, and I felt like I had this whole improv thing down—I could “yes” an “and” like you wouldn’t believe. But that's exactly when you start to get worse as an improviser, because you get bored and you stop making interesting choices. Show up, get a suggestion (“pineapple, thank you”), do the scene (“Hello, I’m a talking pineapple”), get the applause, go home. Even when shows are good, they never get great, because there’s something missing, like a birthday cake without frosting.
Then came the scene in question. I forget most of the context, and improv scenes always sound mortifying when described after the fact, anyway. Suffice it to say that my character was suffering from low blood sugar, and my scene partner insisted that the only way to save my life was to spit in my mouth.
I was raised Catholic, so I know that it’s embarrassing to have a body, and you should do everything you can to pretend you don't, and you definitely shouldn’t let anyone spit in your mouth. I don’t even like licking ice cream cones in public, because I believe the tongue is a private organ. It was improv, so I could have invented a way out, of course—I could have just died, for instance, which is a classic way to escape a scene you don’t want to be in.
But the Spirit of Improv whispered in my ear, “Let it happen.” So I did.
I know it sounds gross, and it was, but it also went on to be the best show I did in a long time, because I regained a precious sense of possibility. When you’re making something out of nothing, it’s easy to forget you can do anything. You can use any word, any note, any idea, and yet you end up using just a few of them over and over. Get too familiar with your own style and it becomes schtick, and schtick sucks, so whenever you’re stuck in schtick, you’ve gotta unstick yourself.
Now, whenever I’m working on something, the question at the back of my mind is always, “Of all possible things to make, why make this?” That realization is worth a couple drops of foreign saliva.
BEHOLD YOUR DOUBLOONS
I don’t think I’ve done a great job answering your question. Maybe this is a “you can’t reach the brain through the ears” kind of situation, and what we’re trying to talk about just doesn’t fit inside sentences. Regardless, here’s a go at summing it up.
We each own a treasure chest bursting with one-of-a-kind riches: experiences that no one else has ever had, and that no one else will ever have again. Finding your voice is a matter of cracking open that chest beholding your fortune.
You don’t have to write about those experiences, though you can if you want to. What you really have to do is write with them. If you ignore them, if you’re disappointed in them, if you wish they were something else—this is an affront to yourself, and it will prevent you from ever producing anything that makes you feel proud. Whenever I create something I don’t like, it’s always because I’m doing an impression of another person, usually the person I think I should be. (See Sasha Chapin’s “If You Have Writer's Block, Maybe You Should Stop Lying”.)
For me, this isn’t unique to writing. It's how I do science, how I talk to people, and how I make irrevocable life decisions. But look, what do I know? This works for me, but all I can really say for certain is: make sure you wear shoes with good arch support.
Experimental History exists thanks to paid subscribers. To get every post, get on board.
Wow Adam, this is a very helpful and delightfully entertaining response to my question - and much more than I could have asked for or expected! I think you've done a far better job answering the question than you give yourself credit for. Thank you for this thoughtful and personal piece.
It's funny, I had a realization not too long ago that went something along the lines of "shit, being a good writer doesn't appear to have much to do with being a good writer." What you've written captures the essence of that idea. Good writing seems to be downstream of much more important stuff, like acknowledging and embracing our own versions of bow-leggedness and esoteric theater productions and improvisational saliva transfer.
I spent a lot of time trying to make my writing sound pretty, and I realized I was doing exactly what you mentioned: “doing an impression of another person, usually the person I think I should be” (which in my case was a Good Writer). But a lot of it was forced and devoid of any of my “doubloons”. Once I stopped trying to sound smart and actually shared some personally meaningful stories and ideas, the writing magically got better. Funny how that works.
All of this is to say: awesome piece, tremendously helpful, resonates in a major way. Thank you.
That line from your clown friend was the darkest and funniest thing I’ve read in a while.