I really love Elizabeth Berg’s books. She writes about ordinary people struggling with ordinary situations, but she makes their journeys compelling and sympathetic. (My favorite of hers is THE JOY SCHOOL, which I listened to on tape). Last night I was paging through a book she wrote in 1999, ESCAPING INTO THE OPEN: The Art of Writing True. This is a wonderful book for beginning fiction writers. A four lighthouse book. 4 LH blue1.jpg  She has excellent exercises, some of which I’ve adapted for my workshops (giving credit where credit is due, of course). Last night, I was reading the chapter about voice in writing and how important it is to let your own voice emerge naturally.
Voice refers to the cadence and quality of your writing, the feeling elicited by the words. When I was writing my first novel, PRIVATE RELATIONS, (which took me, 4 years by the way!), I essentially had no voice. My two favorite authors at the time were Ann Tyler and Alice Hoffman. I can look back at PRIVATE RELATIONS and see the areas where their voices spilled over into mine, filling the vaccuum. With dozens of rewrites of that book, my own voice began to emerge. It does have a little of Hoffman’s dark undertones and a little of Tyler’s simple, accessible clarity, but it’s mine alone. By my third book, SECRET LIVES, I was writing fully in my own voice. I think anyone familiar with my work could read a few paragraphs of a book and know I wrote it.
One of the projects I’m working on now is a book with a light tone, and I’m finding it very difficult. My usual voice keeps creeping in, taking the story to a deeper level, where I don’t want it to be. I think this is a good exercise for me, though frustrating because I have to consciously lighten up. Maybe that’s why I’m enjoying writing this lighter book, even though it may never be published. It’s letting me play, letting me make mistakes without censorship, and letting me learn. What more could I ask for?


  1. Margo on July 31, 2006 at 10:23 am

    After I read ‘Keeper of the Light’ I looked for everything you had written…I was thrilled when I found SECRET LIVES in hardcover and read it instantly…what I loved about this book (and all your others) was the ‘deeper level’ that you take with personalities, struggles and emotions…this book was ‘powerful’ and not to give anything away to other readers, Katherine’s struggle with what I’d call agoraphobia (not wanting to leave the cave) was so real, I wanted to reach out to her and be her friend!!…your writing definitely comes from your soul and if your light book is starting to become ‘deep’, personally I say ‘go for it’!!…whatever comes from your writing will be beautiful, without a doubt…whether deep or light it will be your voice…I thoroughly enjoyed PRIVATE RELATIONS too…I felt a real sense of ‘place’ when I read it…

  2. maureen on July 31, 2006 at 12:59 pm

    It takes time to develop voice, and voice can change over time. When I first wrote poetry I was also influenced by other poet’s voices. Eventually, the personality of the individual comes through.Even though our voice is there from the beginning, I think earlier on we are afraid to listen to our own voice. Sometimes it hides, and we must peel away the layers to get to the truth and uniqueness. Maybe in writing a lighter novel- a different part of yourself will emerge that you didn’t know was there.

  3. Diane on July 31, 2006 at 1:55 pm

    Margo, it’s interesting to me that you wanted to reach out to Katherine and be her friend. I felt such an attachment to that character. First, I never intended for her to be agoraphobic (as I once was), but she just turned out that way. Second, since we only know her through her journal entries, which are first person of course, I felt very close to her. First person has a way of increasing intimacy with a character. And finally, she dies (which the reader knows from the start of the book, so I’m not giving anything away). I cried when I killed her off–I tried to think of ways to keep her alive, but I knew the story demanded that she go. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so close to a character and so saddened by her loss.

  4. Diane on July 31, 2006 at 1:59 pm

    Maureen, nice to see you here! Having read some of your poetry and short stories, I know you’ve found your voice and it’s super. That’s an interesting thought–that we’re afraid to listen to our own voice at first. Maybe new writers don’t trust their voices yet. I like your idea that a different part of myself will emerge as I write the lighter novel. I think that’s definitely happening, but I have to keep an eye on it because I DO slip back into the deep if I don’t focus.

  5. Margo on July 31, 2006 at 4:55 pm

    Diane…it must have been awful for you dealing with agoraphobia…I can’t imagine what it must have been like, and what it must have taken to overcome it!!…I can see why you felt so close to Katherine’s character…I cried alot when she died because I ‘felt’ like her friend and wanted to help her so much…I think that says alot about you as an author and as a human being…

  6. Diane Chamberlain on July 31, 2006 at 6:42 pm

    agoraphobia was no fun, that’s for sure. except for one time when it was to my advantage: i was 18 or 19 and a huge fan of the Young Rascals (music group). i went to see them at carnegie hall and my friends and i left our seats in the hundredth or so balcony and got right in front of the stage. but that was the worst place for me–under a high ceiling in a big place–and after about ten minutes, i had a full blown panic attack. i ran out into the hall until i settled down. then i tried to get back to my friends in the theater, but an usher wouldn’t let me in because my tickets were for the balcony. i started crying. a man came over and asked me why i was crying and i blubbered something about being afraid of the ceiling in the theater and having to leave and now the usher wouldn’t let me back in. so the man, who turned out to be the Rascals’ manager, took my hand and led me backstage. From the side of the stage, i could not only watch the show but also see my friends who were gaping jealously at me. after the show, i went up to the dressing room and got to meet felix cavaliere, who was my Big Crush, and who later wrote me a letter, which i answered with about twenty desperate letters of my own, causing him to withdraw, wisely, from any future correspondence with me. LOL. but aside from that one small benefit, agoraphobia was a drag. 🙁

  7. Margo on August 1, 2006 at 9:35 am

    This must have been a terrible time for you (with the exception of meeting your heartthrob Felix…that was the good thing that came out of it!!)…what a huge challenge in your life to overcome…

  8. Diane Chamberlain on August 1, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    It wasn’t fun and it’s such a hidden problem, because people who have it are rarely out in public. I had to drop out of college and couldn’t hold a job, but also felt as though I had to keep silent about it, because so few people could understand. But since I’ve “come out of the closet” about it, I’ve heard from lots and lots of agoraphobics. That’s one reason why I want to write a memoir about my experience–to reach those people who need to know there’s hope and help.

  9. Brenda on August 11, 2006 at 5:34 pm

    I think the part of your memoir on your agoraphobia will help many people. I know that often we go through valleys so that we can help others…
    Although I suffered from Claustrophia for many years-when I was in my 40’s, I conquered it with determination-almost. I still avoid caves, dark dark places…but elevators and all are fine now. (I was stuck in an elevator at Georgetown University with basketball players-tall tall-when I was one of a gorup of teachers studying Shakespeare at The Folger’s and at Georgetown…) I did fine.
    However, recently at D. World, I did not go through Tom Sawyer’s caves…
    I don’t think C. ever totally leaves one but I can function now.
    MY MOTHER-on the other hand-suffered until she died…there was no way she could stay ALONE in her hospital room with the door closed while she was dying of cancer. I slept in her room for 90 days and nights…
    So-I look forward to reading your memoir…I know it will touch others-and not just those who like your books.

  10. diane on August 11, 2006 at 10:14 pm

    Well, here’s the way I look at it. How often do you have to go in teeny places? And how often do I have to go in gigantic open places? I think everyone’s entitled to one irrational fear.
    ps Your mom was lucky to have you!

Leave a Comment