How I found my voice – Sophie Kipner

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By Sophie Kipner

I was plagued, throughout most of my twenties, with the idea that a real writer writes in a certain way. I’m not entirely sure what I even thought a real writer was, what that looked or sounded like, but by comparing my writing to others, I just separated myself further from figuring out how I actually write.

It’s an odd phrase, “Finding your voice.” As if it were lost in the first place or something. We have it all along, though; it’s just that it gets quieted and squashed under all the other, more prominent and distinct, literary voices that are always swimming around our heads, poking at us. Gnawing. After years of writing embarrassingly overwritten stories, trying too hard to be a type of writer I was inherently not, I finally realized what the problem was: I was in my own way. My stories were failing because the voice behind them was inauthentic. Not only was I writing like someone else, I was taking myself too seriously. The stories were stale before I even began writing them. I knew I needed to get out of my head. I had to push comparisons and self-judgment and doubt aside, and I had to give myself the chance to hear my own voice clearly.

I can recall the exact turning point. After returning to Los Angeles – following a year in New York City – I signed up for a short story writing course at UCLA taught by a wonderful man named Stephen Cooper. At that time, I was babysitting my friend’s gorgeous little five-year-old daughter a few times a week while I was trying to find my way, writing and illustrating for various projects and searching for some affirmation that I was on the right road. I knew I had to fix something in my stories, that they were not working, but I wasn’t sure where they were broken. I also wanted to meet other writers trying to forge the same path I was.

I had always wanted to be a writer, reading the greats in awe and gobbling up their stories of how they learned to write. I read about how Hunter S. Thompson taught himself cadence by rewriting the books of his favorite authors, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and so I tried that, too. While it is a beautiful self-teaching technique to understand how words and sentences can be strung together, it doesn’t get you any closer to your own voice. There was a divide between how I wrote when I was just doing it for me, and how I wrote when I was trying to write a “serious” story. I kept them as separate, isolated worlds, when really they needed to live together. So, armed with a voice not my own, I once again wrote as I thought an author should for my first assigned story.

I had no idea how bad it was until I had to read it in front of the class. No matter how many times you read it out loud at home for flow, it doesn’t prepare you for the reaction in a live room. It fell not just slightly but completely flat. It was based on a true story, and one that was close to my heart, but no one believed what I was writing. No one cared, and I don’t blame the class for not reacting to it because it was awful!

So when we were tasked with a new story to write, I went home immediately and just sat down and started writing how I write. I let myself go, unadulterated by my own internal editor, and before I knew it I had a very distinct character begin to take shape on the page. I let her take me on her journey rather than the other way around, and I think that was how she became alive. It was only in ignoring the criticizing ego that I was able to write with some level of credibility.

This second story, called The Gymnast, received a completely different reaction to anything else I’d read out loud in class. The story follows a delusional girl who misinterprets the moves of an inflexible gymnastics teacher at a children’s gym class for signs of interest, and delves into what she believes is a not-so-secret affair. It made people giggle. It made them uncomfortable, it made them cringe, but it also made them laugh. One of my classmates came up to me afterwards and said he needed to hear more about this character. This completely insane woman who was at once terrifying and lovable; that she was just too crazy not to explore further.

The truth is, I had been taking my friend’s daughter to this gymnastics class, and while the protagonist is a departure from myself, I remember being in those classes, watching this stoned and overweight 20-something dude play with the kids, and I just thought it was so funny. When I sat down to write, I went back to that situation and let her take me on a roller coaster ride. She had her own opinions, her own mannerisms, her own style. She wasn’t me, but she was real. Well, she was (and is) insane (not me!), but nevertheless, true to herself.

Shortly after, with the encouragement of my teacher, I submitted the story and to my amazement, it was published in a literary journal for humor called Kugelmass. Only later, once I began writing more of her, did she become who is now Tabitha Gray, the protagonist in my debut novel, The Optimist.

Writing requires a level of clarity, which I think – at least in my experience – was impossible to achieve when I was hung up initially on trying to write like a writer. Finding your voice is like figuring out who you really are; sometimes, it just takes a while. It is easy for someone to say, “Just be you! Write like you write!” but what does that even mean? How do we know who we are or how we write when we can’t even hear ourselves? By getting out of my own head, by letting go of comparisons and taking myself less seriously, I was able to actually hear myself and create a voice of my own.

That inner critic, while not only helpful but crucial in the editing stage, is one big jerk we don’t need to invite to every party. She or he can come later, after dessert, once we are three sheets to the wind and relaxed. It’s like trying to dance in front of a room without that first cocktail. You need to be able to just let go in the beginning in order to find your rhythm. Learning the steps can come later.

Visual artist and author Sophie Kipner grew up in Topanga, California. A graduate of the University of Southern California, she writes and illustrates her own stories, which have appeared in Kugelmass: A Journal of Literary Humor, Amy Ephron’s One for the Table, FORTH Magazine and The Big Jewel, and her artwork, most recently her series of blind contour portraits, DONTLIFTUPDONTLOOKDOWN, has been shown and sold internationally. She lives in Los Angeles, and The Optimist is her first novel.

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