Let me get this clear: if I hadn’t turned to writing, there’s no way I would have been able to change my life. Writers often stumble onto this phenomenon—how studying this impossible craft has an inescapable effect on a person.
You start out believing writing can be an objective pursuit. There are rules. You believe that if you master grammar and paragraph construction and follow guidelines for characterization, setting, tone, plot, pacing, etc., if you jump through all the hoops you read about in How To books (hopefully with a little grace), you will “become” a writer. You think it will be like playing a musical instrument in that there are techniques and tricks you can master, with a lot of practice. Combine learned skill with a little talent and you’ve got it. What you don’t plan on is how you will be changed.
Even though I was becoming a little obsessed with writing, I thought it was a fairly benign activity. I thought writing had nothing to do with anything but itself.
Living as a full-fledged member of a fundamentalist community is like living under glass. You are schooled to constantly demonstrate your loyalty to spouse and faith and community and doing so becomes part of you. People posture religiosity and don’t even hear or see themselves doing it; it’s a survival skill that protects you from pressure, or worse, getting ostracized and thus isolated. For obvious reasons, the women particularly need this skill.
You are told that God=Truth, and His Truth is Written. With “self” so utterly squelched, what is Written then has infinitely more credence than tiny, insignificant, female, potentially blasphemous you.
I had lived a long time in a strictly religious world. I wasn’t aware, at all, of the following:
- My inner voice was nearly mute from years and years of female silence and deferring to bearded men.
- That inner voice was overlain with a group “voice” that sounded male and rabbinic, spouting wisdom, rules, and admonishments, and it was all infantilizing.
- In place of imagination or fantasy life, my mind was filled with aphorisms and mythic tales all formulated to carry the same message: LOVE GOD. “God” means His bearded representatives and His Law. “Love” means forget Self and obey. Without question.
I started to write at night and hide what I wrote, because I was bursting with stuff I wasn’t supposed to speak about. That was a dangerous beginning. But I was used to veils and so I hid comfortably from myself under a veil labeled “fiction.”
Imprinted by religious storytelling, I thought writing fiction would come naturally. Then the strangest thing happened. When I read my stories, everything sounded formulaic and flat, and the characters sounded shrill. And insincere. Worse, once I could “hear” my characters’ posturing and insincerity, I started to hear the same all around me in my community for the first time. Beneath their insincerity I sensed conflicts and secret pain.
This issue of honesty on the page was a puzzle that occupied me for months. I kept trying, often writing until dawn. One day I was driving five of my kids home from a shoe-shopping expedition (don’t ask) through a Houston summer downpour. We had gotten soaked getting to the car and the kids were wet and gleeful, singing and sparring while I peered around racing windshield wipers into the blur. In the midst of all that, I heard a quiet female voice saying, “I don’t want to write her,” and I recognized her voice as my own!
Then I knew. The character I was struggling with—my job wasn’t to write her. I had to be her.
As a fiction writer I had to become my characters. I would watch how they move and the things they do unconsciously, and listen keenly to their thoughts, conflicts, struggles. Then I’d just let it all pour out my fingertips onto the page.
I would dare to let my characters’ inner voices speak out loud. I would not allow them to be censored. I loved them that much. I would be their megaphone.
It’s true. As a woman long suppressed in a hyper-religious world, I learned to hear the inner voices of my characters before I could recognize my own. Once I could do that, the rest was inevitable.