Mining for Diamonds

Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. 

                         – – – Steve Jobs

Writing in a voice that is not your own is like wearing a coat that’s the wrong size. The sleeves are too long. The material is bursting at the seams and you can’t button it. I know how that feels. I ghostwrote for so many years and I got so good at picking up someone else’s voice, I lost my own. I spent so much time racing
toward short, unreasonable deadlines, I’d gotten in the habit of going too fast, chasing the clock and counting pages. I felt like a drone, using words and phrases that reflected other people’s ideas and visions. That’s tragic for a writer.

When I stopped ghostwriting, it felt like I was lifting a sheet and exposing my raw skin to the sun for the first time. No longer hidden by the white cotton folds that had swaddled my expression for so long, I began to search for my own voice. When I found it, I was ecstatic.

Do you know what “finding your authentic voice” means? When you mine for diamonds (search for your voice), massive amounts of soil are lifted from the earth (the text) with the diamonds hidden inside. Once the rough gems are extracted, they are cleaned, cut and polished (edited), a process that spans many months from the day they were unearthed. And you are left with a sparkling diamond that
reflects prisms of light.

It takes teams of people to mine diamonds, but finding your voice is your personal mountain to climb. You’re searching for your truth, for the natural rhythm and pacing of your words that will allow the sentences to fall into line and sound like you. You do a draft, you read your work, you dig deeper, you try this and that, and finally, the prose starts to sound right.  

It takes commitment, stamina and the determination to keep going in order to find what you’re looking for. Sometimes you have to dig into the deep recesses of your consciousness and at other times, it’s right on the tip of your tongue. If you’re not sure if you’ve found your true voice, I suggest reading your work out loud. If it’s not really you, it will sound unfamiliar and far away. If it is you, all I can say is that somehow you’ll know it.

There’s a Sufi story about a spiritual seeker who
wanted to know himself better. He wanted to study with a master who lived on the top of a frozen mountain. He began his climb, the temperatures were frigid and he fell into snow drifts and slid across ice banks. He was shaking and exhausted when he reached the top of the mountain. He stopped and stared. There was the master in his red robes, one arm bared, sitting quietly in the freezing cold, meditating at the entrance to a cave. When the holy man opened his eyes and looked at the weary traveler, shivering and soaked to the bone, he said, “You came all the way up this freezing mountain to look in the mirror? You can stay if you’re not looking for a teacher.”

The implication is that if we are honest with ourselves, we have everything we need to be authentic. We don’t need to look to someone else to get our answers or to make us better at our craft.

My philosophy is simple:

There is no such thing as
good or bad writing. If you’re coming from your
heart and you find the courage to tell the truth on the page, your work will be interesting.

If you’re coming from your head, trying to reflect who you want to be and what you want the truth to be true, your work will be boring. It takes consistency and commitment to find your voice and accept it as your own. It’s important to be patient with yourself because no matter how hard you search, you don’t always recognize your authentic voice when you first find it.

A member of British royalty for whom I was penning a memoir was distressed when I submitted an initial draft to her.

“What don’t you like?” I asked her. I had spent a great deal of time tuning into her voice and thought I’d done a good job of recreating it on the page.

“It sounds just like me,” she said.

“Is that a problem?” I asked.

“Yes. I don’t like how I sound.”

Maybe you think your work is so sophomoric, it would be better to copy someone else’s. Maybe you’ve forgotten what you had in mind when you started. Maybe you’re searching for the right words but they keep slipping away. Whatever the reason, you won’t feel fulfilled until you find that connection between your heart, your mind and the page. I decided to read my work out loud and some of sounded like a foreign language, it was so not me. It felt like I was walking from room to room in my childhood home, dredging up memories and trying to fit them into the life I was living now. Was that my bedroom or my sister’s? Did I like the same food back then that I liked now?
Was I a soother, a yeller, a people pleaser, an encourager or a criticizer? Had my language matured along with my body and mind?

I changed my approach and made a vow to be vulnerable. If I felt awkward about something, I wrote it that way. If I was angry, I cursed on the page. If I felt sexy, I used sensual words and phrases that turned me on. If I felt frightened, I admitted it. I stopped trying to wrap everything up, all neat and tidy, because real life doesn’t unfold that way. When I dropped into a familiarity with myself, the work became less complicated and more satisfying and I began to
look forward to my sessions.

It’s uncanny how a reader can feel the lack of integrity if you don’t represent yourself authentically. When you stop chasing pages and word counts, when you stop trying to emulate someone else and just be yourself, you have a chance to express your individuality. That will make your work accessible and enjoyable to the reader and it will encourage you to keep on writing.