Being green (with youth, with envy)

When I was stressed out about my schoolwork and wanted to take a break this semester, I started re-reading the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. When I first read them in 2018, I read them faster than I’d read pretty much any book in the past few years. I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I loved (and still love) the books so much I’m trying to emulate the narrator’s voice in writing exercises in my journal. I recommend them at every possible moment. I evangelize these books so hard.

And I feel like the novels are a cleverly-disguised grab bag of ideas; everyone finds something in there that’s tailor-made for them. Based on the Goodreads reviews, readers grasp the intricacy and complexity of the novels, but they also subtly highlight the defining quality that held the books together for them, whether it’s the strong connection to a place, the intensity of the central female friendship, or the turbulent political atmosphere that’s more explicit in the later books.

For me, what holds the story together is the narrator, Elena Greco, and not just because the books stay in her point of view. I feel that I am Elena, especially during her early adult years. Her relationship with her mother is tense and rife with conflict, but also contains moments of affection. Education is her way of advancing her status, but when she does succeed in that new arena, she is still dragged down by an intense self-doubt. And then, probably the characteristic I felt the closest to most of all: Writing eventually becomes the lens through which she sees the world.

In the novels, Elena Greco publishes her first book after graduating from university, around the age of 22.

For me, I have not yet experienced that kind of success.

Throughout the past few years, I’ve absorbed all kinds of advice on writing and publishing. (I’ve even sometimes dispensed my own, somewhat meager, advice on the former.) And there is a certain kind of combo advice and motivational speech that published authors dispense when asked to give some words to the aspiring: “Never give up.” “I was rejected a hundred times before I published my first piece.” “You never know if the thousandth attempt is going to be the lucky one.” Et cetera. And I feel like I have taken this advice to heart. I have my rejections, and I have even flaunted them in a way (i.e., occasionally in my Instagram story where it will disappear in 24 hours). But it is still hard to take sometimes, especially when so many success stories seem to emphasize youth and vitality.

I am 26 years old now. This coming week, I’ll be turning 27. I’m still laughably, sickeningly young, and yet also worried that the youth card will be revoked soon. Who cares if I publish? I didn’t do it fast enough.

When I was 21, I had my first ever short story accepted by a literary magazine at my university. I was taking an introductory creative writing class while studying abroad in Australia, and the first story I had workshopped was the one I decided to submit, on a bit of a whim, the day before the deadline. A few months later, I ended up getting an acceptance, when I was expecting a rejection.

That early success went to my head in much the same way that Elena’s first invitation to submit a short piece to a magazine unleashed a torrent of daydreaming about writing. I started having grand ideas of submitting somewhere every month, of getting story after story out into the world. But, as you can see from my somewhat paltry publication record (at the time of posting this), that hasn’t been the case.

Here’s what I didn’t take into account in the throes of my immature ambition: I did a lot of writing to get that first story to a good place. I had written three different stories before stumbling on the one I would eventually take to my class for feedback. I edited. A lot. I sat at my desk for hours copying it by hand, making tweaks to it as I went, then spent more time marking it up, then typing it again, tweaking it again. I did this because early in the semester I had the energy for it. My other stories submitted to the class later on didn’t get that same attention. And it’s no wonder they ended up not going anywhere.

Since that first success, I’ve grown a little more realistic about writing and publishing. I’ve stopped seeing my twenties as this benchmark, this window of time when I can launch my career as a writer. And I’ve also become more familiar with the things I personally need to do to get my stories to a good place. Write. Rewrite. Edit. Become intimately familiar with every word of a story. Step back and give it time. All things that writers before me have said.

I revisited the Neapolitan Novels a lot this semester because I had a lot on my plate. I was in a Fiction workshop, a Poetry workshop, and a Science Fiction class that had a workshop component; I co-taught an undergraduate Creative Writing class; and I also took a class on climate change. I have felt euphoria in my writing and intense self-doubt on re-reading it. In those moments of self-doubt, I returned to a book I admired. On my second full read-through of the series, I am finding so much more in it than I had initially.

And this is the only way I know how to ripen from green to a full-flushed color: Reading and re-reading. Becoming familiar with every word of the stories (and people and places and experiences) I love.

Stepping back and giving it time.

Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Practicing voice

I’ve just finished reading the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein), and if you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend that you do. But among the many virtues of these books, one that really struck me was the voice.

Over the course of the four novels, I became so familiar with the voice of the point of view character, a woman named Elena Greco, that I felt myself unconsciously starting to write in it. (I often have this tendency to imitate; I fear the day I might meet my current celebrity crush, Tom Hiddleston, and accidentally do a bad impression of his accent.)

I decided to fully commit and try on the voice for myself. At first, I tried to spice up my own, personal journaling about my real life by writing about my day in the voice of Ferrante’s narrator. The narrator—not the character. To me, this distinction is crucial. I felt that writing from the perspective of Elena Greco would be somewhat restrictive; an Italian woman in her 60s probably wouldn’t have much to say about my life. I wasn’t looking to write from a total outsider’s perspective, but rather wanted to imitate the intimacy, the attention to detail that Elena projected on her friend Lila’s life, and on her own experience. So I focused on what the narrator sounded like, the word choice, the sentence structure. I focused on what details the narrator drew out and described facial expressions, attitude, the atmosphere between characters.

Voice experimentation and practice through imitation isn’t unheard of, but I hadn’t really done it in the past. Now, having written through this exercise a few times, I can see how useful it is to help me pick out what makes a writing voice unique. Hopefully, that means I’m improving this aspect of my own writing that can be difficult to pin down but is so necessary to great storytelling.

What are your favorite ways to work on voice? Let me know!


This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

P.S. The header image is a photo I took of the third Neapolitan Novel. I was on a work retreat and had trouble falling asleep, so would read basically until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I woke up one day to the sight of the book in bed with me.

P.P.S. Another thing I’ve been enjoying is Elena Ferrante’s column in the Guardian. Check it out: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/series/elena-ferrantes-weekend-column