In the autumn of 2008 I was approaching the 5th anniversary of my writer’s block. During those years I never stopped writing and sometimes even produced publishable works. However, writing had become much harder than it used to be and the ratio of bad work to good was incredibly high. I felt I’d lost my writing voice. I took to producing sentences such as:
"The story of how my parents met strikes me as a perfect example of the tight connection between the personal and political that characterised the Soviet Union."
That pompous, laborious prose was meant to convey to my readers what a genius I supposedly was, but really the stilted language came from a place of deep insecurity. During those five years, whenever I wrote I felt as if I was a gladiator, fighting for my life in front of the bloodthirsty crowd of my imaginary readers who only wished for my defeat and for it to be as gruesome as possible.
In the same autumn I met Daryl, the man who would later become my husband. In some ways this was the most unfortunate timing for falling in love, since Daryl had already arranged before we’d met to go overseas for a four-month sabbatical. Three months into our budding romance he left and – in an attempt to maintain what we’d just begun – we embarked on a daily epistolary bacchanalia that conducted itself mostly in the seductive, flickering world of cyberspace.
Now, Daryl is a highly intelligent man. From the start of our correspondence I felt pressure to perform. Yet that pressure was different to the one I experienced when I did my so-called creative work. I could not imagine Daryl as some gory spectator, a disdainful reader ready to pick on my mistakes, simply because he was a real person to me. My writing to him was embedded within our short but intense history of togetherness. I already had some knowledge of his particular sense of humor and his sensibilities. As I wrote to him, I’d try to guess which of my sentences would elicit that particular wry smile of his that I liked, or which turns of phrase he would appreciate.
"I finally met X. He was charming and chatty and everything I hoped he’d be. But also sicker than I imagined him to be … We had a great conversation in Russian about polyglotism and Siberian architecture until his friend arrived to pick him up. I watched them walking away and saw X leaning onto her, heavily. That sight was the saddest thing I’d seen in a while. I can’t forget it: this wonderful, decadent man literally collapsing onto someone else’s body. He looked so thin. And you could see death at the edges of his smile. That smile reminded me of a fox for some reason. Or maybe it was his eyes – incredibly fierce."
In my emails to Daryl I had a certain persona with a voice that was me much more than the pretentious personages I’d tried on for my imaginary readers. While the pressure to impress remained strong, it also felt delicious. I was focused on bringing the best out of myself and on entertaining my one-man audience, rather than on pretending I was someone else. Really, I was reconnecting to the erotics of writing, something I’d hardly felt in the previous five years.
And I had deadlines to meet. Corresponding daily forces you to discard pomposity for the sake of a nobler pursuit: rediscovering – as the literary critic Viktor Shklovsky would have it – the strange in the familiar. Instead of positioning myself as a modern-day seer, I was now busy finding something worthwhile to write about in my everyday. Since nothing truly outstanding was happening to me then, to keep up the electronic seduction momentum I placed more emphasis on the language itself, trying to dress my mundane stories with some fresh language and wit. Daryl’s encouraging responses to my emails kept coming with his own lovely, engaging voice. I relaxed a little in the electronic space we carved for ourselves and even began liking the me-but-not-exactly who appeared on our screens.
"Melbourne has been overflowing with water for most of this week and I just thought for the hundredth time today – what a shame that this winter is getting wasted on me alone and you aren’t here to listen to the raindrops with me."
As weeks went by, I recalled what I used to teach in my writing classes but stopped applying in my own work (as the Russian saying goes, the shoemaker always goes barefoot): that writer’s voice is not something you “come up with”. It is something you pull out of your guts as you dive deeper inside yourself beyond the daily platitudes, beyond the anxiety to make the impression that you are a nice person. Writer’s voice emerges when you finally take the risk and put on paper what you really think about the world – even when the truth is politically incorrect or compromising in other ways – using your unique vocabulary. In writing to Daryl, I rediscovered those words that felt delicious on my tongue and resonated with how I experienced the world: picaresque, metamorphosis, serpentine, rather than those hidden obscurely in the dictionary that I used to dig out like potatoes just for the sake of showing off.
When finally Daryl returned to Melbourne and we began spending our days together, the biblical flood of our correspondence metamorphosed into trickles of haiku-like SMSs. Yet, thankfully, the creative energy generated in cyberspace didn’t vanish, instead redirecting itself into my work. Gradually, while writing – whether my memoir, essays or short stories – I trained myself to imagine that I was crafting those tales for one particular reader: someone I supposedly knew and cared about, someone both intellectually sharp and kind, humorous but not sarcastic. Someone akin to a lover, whom I wanted to go on seducing.
Of course there are many other ways to help us find our voices or rediscover, hone and sustain them, and I plan to address some of those tricks in later posts. For now though, I’m curious to know whether anyone else has had any epistolary epiphanies.
About Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books (in Hebrew). Her publications in English appeared in Australia, UK, Scotland, Canada and USA, including in Best Australian Essays 2012 and Best Australian Stories 2007. She is the recipient of the Australian Council Grant, numerous writing residencies and the ASA mentorship. Lee teaches and mentors writers through a variety of organisations, including Writers Victoria. Her memoir The Dangerous Bride has been shortlisted for the Harpers Collins Varuna Award 2012.
On this website, you can also read Lee's latest post on Wanted: a muse, alight.