Lynn Freed has published six novels, a story collection, and a collection of essays. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, Elle, Harpers, Best American Short Stories, and Pen/O. Henry Prize Series. Lynn teaches in the writing program at UC Davis and at the Squaw, Napa, and Bread Loaf writers’ conferences. Her upcoming workshop will be split between six fiction and six creative non-fiction writers, a unique mix in the Master Teacher Series.
In reading Lynn’s novels and short stories, and her memoir Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home, I’m struck with the strength and similarity of the voice in each genre. There’s a wit, and a sharp observation, and a willingness to take the story as deep and strange and uncomfortable as it needs to go. Critics notice this fearless quality too: Kirkus Reviews, in commenting on her latest novel The Servants’ Quarters, calls it “bright, brittle, fierce, and written with verve.” And Amy Tan, commenting on the book, describes Lynn Freed as “A daring storyteller of inner lives…hers is the voice of an observant and wickedly truthful Jane Eyre.”
Since a unique voice is something every writer strives for, I started my questions there.
Finding their “voice” is something writers just learning their craft often struggle with. Is it enough, as a teacher, to simply point out to a student when the voice in their writing seems authentic and when it isn’t, and thereby gently guide them into more effective writing? How can you possibly “teach” voice?
Finding the voice for a piece — and, in a larger sense, one’s voice as a writer — is something to be struggled for. It cannot be learned; it has to be strived after. A writer must love the language, love words, the music and rhythm of words, the relationship between experience, thought, word. Without meaning, voice is just sound.
Did you always write with the wit and honesty you do now? Was there an “aha” moment for you, someone or something that guided you and helped you realize your “voice?”
Good Lord, no. I spent a number of years dishonestly trying to do what other people did. I say “dishonestly,” but I didn’t know, as I struggled, that it was so; I just knew that nothing I was doing seemed authentic. I’ve written about this more fully in a few essays, and most recently in one on writing and travel, called “The Romance of Elsewhere”, that was published in Narrative Magazine. http://narrativemagazine.com/issues/winter-2011/romance-elsewhere
(this is a terrific article: the focus is on writing, travel, and finding the writer’s voice. And yes, you will find Lynn’s “aha” moment, a very important moment. So, click on the article now. But, don’t forget to come back to the blog!)
Since your upcoming Master Teacher workshop will consider both fiction and non-fiction, is there a difference between a fiction and a non-fiction voice? Are they equally important?
Importance doesn’t come into it. Finding the voice for fiction is an imaginative feat, struggled for, landed upon, if one is lucky, at last. Finding the voice for non-fiction is to search for a voice appropriate to the subject at hand — to exploring that subject. A voice, in other words, most likely to lead one to the truth.
By truth do you mean accuracy? Or something deeper?
I mean authenticity, both to the writer and to the subject. Accuracy is, of course, integral to authenticity, but not necessarily accuracy in terms of fact. Rather it is an accuracy of tone, probability, character, shape, etc. This is very difficult to define.
You’ve said that many of your stories come from your early years in South Africa, so I’m assuming that all of your writing begins with your experience. In addition, you’ve published both fiction and memoir. How do you decide whether to treat a story as fiction, or non-fiction? What are your guidelines for your own writing here, and what do you advise your students?
What I suspect is that some subjects are easier to explore in fiction, and others in memoir or essays. What writing in both genres have in common is the search for a truth. Generally, if it’s fiction, a situation will have been with me for some time, awaiting, I suppose, a set of characters, a place, a time, and the impulse to write it. If it’s non-fiction, I generally go about writing about it because I want to explore the subject — the role of mothers in fiction, for instance, or the longing to travel.
The Master Teacher workshop you’re conducting is a rare hybrid—a mix of fiction and non-fiction. What do you hope writers in the workshop will take away from their experience of working with you? What does fiction have to teach non-fiction? And, vice-versa?
It’s not so rare; I’ve done it a number of times. As to this teaching that, I don’t tend to think in those terms. What I would hope is that the writer, writing in either genre, will come to understand where the strengths, if any, and shortcomings, if any, lie. And want to make it work better.
The reason I write fiction is primarily because I like to make things up, but also because I want to use personal experience but don’t want to offend the source, i.e., the people I’m basing the story on. What do you advise non-fiction writers about the possibility that their writing might offend/surprise someone they love?
If you’re worrying about offending someone, don’t write. Fiction can offend just as surely as non-fiction, and often more so.
Ha! So, I should be ready for my relatives to come at me with pitchforks whether they’re fictionalized or not?
If you do it right, they’ll come. But you won’t know which ones!
The Master Teacher workshop with Lynn Freed will take place June 30 – July 1, 2012. For more in-depth stories about her personal and writing life, read her memoir “Reading, Writing,and Leaving Home,” (Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt, September, 2005) and visit her website, http://www.lynnfreed.com/
Sue Staats recently received her MFA in Fiction from Pacific University. She’s currently revising her novella, The Mitchell Boys, and working on a collection of linked short stories. Her short story “No Hero, No Sharks” was runner-up for the 2011 Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction, a finalist for the 2011 Reynolds Price Fiction Award, and was published this spring in The Farallon Review. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have also been published numerous times in Susurrus, the literary journal of Sacramento City College.