Shaun Levin

On Being Ready to Speak

In Writing on April 22, 2011 at 5:11 pm

It takes years to learn how to write, and by that I mean: to learn how to say what you want to say in the way it needs to be said. I am also talking about Voice. It takes years. No one expects a baby to speak properly from the start. The desire to speak is not enough to bring about the capacity to do so. It’s heartbreaking that it should take so long. Why can’t we know how to write  just because we want to write?

We have to enjoy that time of babyness, of learning how to write, of learning what our voice sounds like, of copying other people, imitating the ones we love, the ones who bully us, and try to be stronger, try to …. learn how to curse and how to fit in, but also to become aware of what our voice sounds like when we’re on our own, away from everyone and everything and what we sound like to ourselves, in our solitude, in our, excuse the cliché, heart of hearts. To really know – yes, in one’s heart of hearts! – that learning how to write takes years, can save one a lot of heartache. It puts rejection into perspective! Some people take longer, and some people are quicker. Some of us have less unlearning to do, less untangling from the dictates of bad and well-meaning teachers and “the right way” to write.

When I look back at some of my early work, and some of my writing in notebooks from twenty and thirty years ago, I am shocked by how evident the babyness is in my voice, a voice that is not yet ready to speak. I wonder if there are some writers who are made to think, just because they have published a book, or because they have a good (ie. tragic, gossip-worthy, anecdotal) story to tell, or just because they have finished writing a book and someone has accepted it and published it and maybe they have even won a prize for it, prizes even, but still they are not yet ready to speak, not yet ready to stand up on a podium, as a three-year old is not, and tell their story to the world. We don’t expect that of a three-year old. And some three-year olds – some of us – and maybe it’s necessary that we don’t know that, that we don’t know that we’re not yet ready, that we can talk to the world, so that we can send stories out and enter competitions, and approach agents and publishers, because we want to be part of the world of books and writing and writers and that’s what we have to do, to behave like writers, to see what its like, to try it out, to be rejected, to fail, and every now and then to have someone say yes to us, so that we can keep learning to speak, to make our voice even clearer, and even more our own.

How do we learn to write? (Note to self: Research the stages of how a child learns to speak, what the stages are of the voice, how the voice and speech come into being.) We listen to others, we listen to how others speak and notice how they get things, what they say in order to create an effect, what they say to make us cry, to make us happy, and what they expect and want us to say. We observe. Those years when we’re gurgling and speaking gibberish, we’re watching, learning how to formulate words, trying things out, getting them wrong, not being understood, and yet we keep going, because one day we will be understood, we will make our needs known, our feelings, we will be able to tell what we saw when those we love aren’t there to witness it. In our first few years it seems there are always witnesses to our lives, to every moment of what we do, except when we are asleep, or alone in our cots.

One of the reasons we learn to speak is to feed back to those who weren’t there. We want to be able to come home and say this is what I saw, this is what happened to me when you weren’t there. And we want to go out into the world at some point… or at some point we want to go out into the world and tell strangers, tell new people, what has happened to us at home. We have to get to the point of leaving home, of wanting to leave home, so that we can tell others what happened to us there.

Read up about the compulsion to tell a story? Why do we tell our story? And who do we want to tell our story to? Ask psychologists and traditional storytellers. Ask painters and musicians.

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