How my writing changed because of three simple words – Alex Shahla

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By Alex Shahla

They haunted me. Stuck in my mind. Woke me from my slumber. Kept me guessing. Permeated every part of my existence. What, you ask? Words. Three, in fact: Find your voice.♥

I was a senior in high school and my bedroom was stock full of college brochures. Most of it was pabulum. Meaningless words on high gloss paper that I glanced at once or twice, but never took seriously. No college was going to woo me with media which could easily be recreated with stock photography of happy students — who clearly did not understand the dangers of compound interest (yay student loans!) — at the local Kinkos (I’m dating myself, but this was actually before the acquisition). And yet… the words on the brochure caught my attention.

Although I didn’t attend the college with “find your voice” on the brochure — as I said, pabulum — the words nevertheless stuck with me even years later when I started writing my first novel. Questions about voice flurried through my mind: What does it mean to have a voice? Did I have a voice? Did everyone have a voice? And if I don’t have a voice, how can I go about finding said voice? Do members of Amazon Prime receive free shipping on voice? I was like those poor, helpless townspeople from the movie Footloose who had never once felt rhythm. What’s dancing?

Even with all of these questions still lingering in my mind, I managed to complete my first novel. And it was terrible. Then I wrote my second novel, and it was — yup — terrible. The third novel I wrote — by now you’ve probably realized that I’m incredibly resilient — was terrible. Truth be told, I would have been better served instead by these three words: Find a job.

Still, I persisted, but I was left with more questions than answers. Why were the books I was writing so bad? And could I fix it? There was something missing, and that something? Take a guess. It was voice. My problem was that I was trying to emulate writers I admired, and in doing so, attempting to write stories that had worked for them. I couldn’t do it. I shouldn’t do it. But I didn’t know that I couldn’t and shouldn’t. My novels lacked spirit. They lacked a soul. They lacked me.

I was like Peter Pan trying to find his shadow — only, for the longest time, I didn’t even know I had a shadow. I had yet to define who I was going to be in the literary world. I didn’t have an identity or a clear vision. Instead, I assumed other writers’ identities — tried to undertake their visions. I was the Talented Mr. Ripley.

Finally, something clicked. I let go of trying to be somebody else, and at long last, wrote for myself. I didn’t write for the readers of other writers. The words that had haunted me made sense. I don’t remember the exact moment it did, but the change was evident in my writing. And I couldn’t have been more surprised.

This epiphany took nearly a decade. And looking back on it now, it should have been obvious to me — isn’t that always the case? I knew that voice was important — paramount — but I didn’t understand, or maybe even feel comfortable, writing in my voice. As to how I finally arrived at this understanding? I’m not exactly sure. I suppose it’s fair to say that with lots of failure comes lots of introspection. And sure enough, it took many hours staring at a blank screen, wondering why I wasn’t satisfied with the words I had written. But thankfully, I eventually learned to focus on what I wanted to say rather than worrying about what other writers had said.

Words have a funny way of staying in your head for a lifetime. I’m glad those three stuck in my head because they made me a better writer, and I’m not sure I would be the writer I am today had it not been for that haunting. After many years of writing words that didn’t work, I finally learned to write ones that did; and as a result, I am now proud of what I have written. To paraphrase and adapt — and possibly butcher — Gandhi, write the book you want to see in the world. That’s just what I did.

Lying to Children debuted on June 6. It’s my first novel, and one that I’m proud of, because, and if for no other reason than, I finally found my voice.

Alex Shahla received his undergraduate degree from Haverford College and his juris doctor from Pepperdine University School of Law. He spent his first two years after law school working in civil litigation with a particular focus on aviation incidents. He has since retired from the practice of law and now works in-house for an apparel company. He lives near the beach in Santa Monica, CA.

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