Back in 2014, our friend, Brendan Leonard crafted a series of insightful pieces titled, “Finding Your Voice”. We decided to resurrect Brendan’s work in the form of three Throwback Thursday posts. See more of Brendan at his website semi-rad.com and on Instagram (@semi_rad). And stay tuned for Vol. 2!
When I was 17, I scrawled the first draft of a story about a road trip into a spiral notebook. It was fiction, because I had just read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and I thought that was fiction. I don’t remember anything about the story, other than the characters left my small hometown in northeast Iowa and headed West. And it was handwritten, and the notebook was red. Nobody ever read it, and it ended up in a box somewhere, or in the trash.
I knew then that I wanted to be like the characters in Kerouac’s book, to live something of an adventure, and hopefully write about it. I didn’t really know how though. I played football, ran track, and did all the mischievous stuff high school kids do. I wrote only a little in a creative writing class and a few notes to girls. I left for college and started classes, starting down various career paths: communications, then biology, then English (for one day), and finally marketing, which I figured would give me a career where I could be creative and get a solid paycheck. Because who could tell you how to be a writer? You go to college to get a job, and being a writer isn’t a job—it is some sort of fantasy thing people like Stephen King did.
I didn’t know how to be a writer anyway, really. I knew how to find and read good books—that was easy. They practically recommended themselves, appearing on bookstore shelves next to each other, or came up in conversation with other people—oh, you like so-and-so? Have you read so-and-so? You should.
Learning to write like those great writers, though, is not easy.
Ira Glass talked about this in an interview, which David Shiyang Liu made into a 2-minute viral film. The first thing Ira Glass says is this:
“Nobody tells people who are beginners and I really really wish somebody had told this to me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it and we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap. That for the first couple of years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good. It has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.”
I picked up a new literary hero in Hunter S. Thompson, and started writing a column for the university newspaper. Hunter Thompson partied hard, so I did. I guess I thought that was what made him such a great storyteller. I mean, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the story of a big, messy party, right?
Not quite. What I missed back when I was 22, was the evolution of Thompson’s career as a writer. He didn’t just spontaneously burst onto the scene after writing a story about a wild weekend in Vegas. Five years before that, he embedded himself with the Hell’s Angels and wrote a book about it—journalism.
The thing that I didn’t get is that in order to write or create, you have to have something to write about. They say “write about what you know,” and in my early 20s, I didn’t know about much in life (although I sure thought I did).
It wasn’t until my second semester of grad school, when I had a meeting with my Creative Nonfiction Workshop professor, that someone spelled it out for me. My professor asked me: What have you done that’s unique? Where can your writing take people that they haven’t been?
I started to take a look back at what I had done that was interesting, different from everyone else in the class. The list wasn’t long. I found a couple of things, tried to write them well, and got some encouragement.
What I wish someone had told 17-year-old me, scrawling a poorly-conceived road trip story in a notebook, is that if you want to make good stories, you have to live good stories. Living is part of developing a creative voice if you want to make photographs, or films, or write stories (unless you want to do fiction, of course). You don’t have to climb Mount Everest, or drive from Prudhoe Bay to Tierra del Fuego in a VW bus, but you have to do some things you can feel—have some visceral experiences.