Growing into our style by loving the reader

by Mr. Sheehy

In an exchange of letters years ago a former student and I were batting around the source of voice in our writing. As a college student, if I understood his points correctly, he was exploring the way other writers were influencing his voice and striving to discover within himself how he might differentiate himself: “If I fail to make them my own? / I fail to make anything worthy at all.” His comments often come to mind as I share with students excerpts from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, where McPhee is quoting a letter he’s written to his daughter, who is suffering from similar troubles:

The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered—wherever and whenever—and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own. Rapidly, the components of imitation fade. What remains is a new element in your own voice, which is not in any way an imitation. Your manner as a writer takes form in this way, a fragment at a time. A style that lacks strain and self-consciousness is what you seem to aspire to, or you wouldn’t be bringing the matter up. Therefore, your goal is in the right place. So practice taking shots at it. A relaxed, unself-conscious style is not something that one person is born with and another not. Writers do not spring full-blown from the ear of Zeus.

William Zinsser has similar encouragement, particularly in On Writing Well, but I ran accross additional Zinsser wisdom in Writing About Your Life. Here, he observes how long style takes to develop, a point I have found to be entirely true to my own experience:

Writers are always impatient to find their style, as if they expect it to descend on them, heaven-sent, in their twenties or early thirties. Usually it takes longer; we grow into our style. I could argue that I didn’t really find my style until I wrote On Writing Well, in my fifties. Until then my style more probably reflected who I wanted to be perceived as–the urbane essayist or columnist or humorist–than who I really was. Only when I began to write as a teacher and had no agenda except to be helpful–to pass along what I knew–did my style become integrated with my personality and my character.

I don’t think there is anything magic about Zinsser’s age there, but there does appear to be something magic about the lack of focus on himself. When he quit trying to portray himself as something and served something beyond himself, serving his reader, his voice developed (I find myself resistant to the metaphor of discovery when discussing voice, but I’ll have to save that topic for another day).

Some of how I rephrase Zinsser there is traceable to Jonathan Rogers, who speaks well about the importance for a writers to love their readers:

You’re not really going to grow as a writer until you stop thinking about what you’re going to get out of writing (significance, respect, love, money, recognition, etc.) and start thinking about what you can give through your writing. What do you have to give to your reader that he can’t get for himself?

And if we’re tracing sources of loving others and not consuming ourselves with thoughts of ourselves, why not trace back to an even more ancient source of wisdom?

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.