Finding Your Voice: 5 Questions for Greg Garrett

“Once you’ve written something that’s really good and you believe in it enough to be tenacious getting it out there, someone will pay attention.” -Greg Garrett

Greg Garrett is the author of four acclaimed novels (the fifth drops in April) and two dozen nonfiction books on race, politics, faith, and culture. He is the Carole McDaniel Hanks Professor of Literature and Culture at Baylor University, where his students have published novels and short stories and written for Hollywood. Greg has offered highly-rated classes for the Writers’ League for twenty years. For more information about Greg Garrett, please visit his website.

On Wednesday, October 12th, Greg Garrett is teaching a class for the WLT called “Who Tells Your Story: Point of View and Voice in Fiction Writing. In this class you’ll learn strategies for developing a distinct voice and working through challenges to choose a point of view for any project you’re working on.

Here’s what Greg had to share with us:

Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you write? How did you come to writing?

Greg Garrett: I’ve been writing since I was a small person. My Grandma Irene used to have some stories I’d written and illustrated about astronauts and firefighters. I kept writing through high school and college, went to grad school a couple of times to learn more about how to write, and I’m still learning, twenty-plus books in.

I write widely across genres. I started by publishing dozens of short stories. My fifth novel is coming out in the spring. I’ve written two books of memoir, and a bunch of books about the things that fascinate me: race, politics, faith, and culture. I also do journalism about those topics—columns, op-ed pieces, and essays for places like the Washington Post and the London Spectator. And I’m a couple of years into developing with a partner a prestige limited TV series that some producers are shopping around.

Scribe: In your own work, how do you approach overcoming the challenges that come with writing, be it writer’s block or craft or business-related challenges?

GG: I’m not sure I have overcome the challenges of the writer’s life! Writing still feels like work– like Annie Lamott, I still seek almost every excuse to do something other than write, and midway through every book I’ve written—every one—I’ve had a moment or a month or a couple of months where I’ve felt like I am the stupidest person alive and this writing thing was a terrible idea.

The best advice I have about writing is far from magical, but it’s good advice for most things: Show up. Set your priorities. Do the work as well as you can.

Since I teach, I have times where I can go away to write for a week or so. I sit down every year with my wife and the calendar, and she helps me figure out what might work both for me and for my family. I know my family is making sacrifices so that I can do my work, and
that helps me stop making excuses and focus.

One last related suggestion: find a place you like to write and come back to it. You’ll find it easier to get back into a writing state, and you’ll feel more confident that something good is going to happen. I’ve been writing at a friend’s cabin in Colorado for over ten years, off and on, and I seem to write better there than anyplace else.

Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

GG: In college, I studied with Hansford Martin, who had taught Flannery O’Connor at the University of Iowa. He said that when we were building our characters, we needed to imagine the deepest possible hole we could dig for them. The story we wrote was their attempt to claw their way out. Since then, I’ve known how important it is to tell stories about people who are deeply broken and to not, as Kurt Vonnegut used to warn, be too nice to my characters.

I also had the experience of studying with Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler one
summer at Iowa. I walked into his classroom as a fiction writer whose pages were sometimes riveting—and sometimes rambling. Bob Butler taught us that it was essential to write scenes moment to moment, to recreate the emotions of the character for our reader, and to avoid laziness like summary and authorial analysis of the action. I haven’t written perfect pages every time since then. But when my scenes are just lying there on the page, it’s almost always because I’m violating one or more of Bob’s proscriptions, and a good developmental editor—or, on my good days, me—will say, “Do you see what you’re doing here?” And I will nod, and sigh, and fix it.

Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

GG: The questions I hear from my students at Baylor and often hear when I do workshops for the Writers League or the Austin Film Festival have to do with the business of writing.

So as gently as I can—as I will say it now for readers of the WLT blog—here’s my advice. Write something. Write something else. It’ll be better than the first thing. Write something else again.

Don’t ask business questions until something you finish is as good as what you’re reading or what you’re watching. Your mom will celebrate that you made something—anything—and put it on the refrigerator. But the publishing or film worlds will not care that you’ve made something until it’s really good.

Once you’ve written something that’s really good and you believe in it enough to be tenacious getting it out there, someone will pay attention.

Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

GG: How you tell a story should be one of the great strengths of your story, not merely an accident. Another of my teachers at Iowa, W. P. Kinsella (his novel Shoeless Joe was made into Field of Dreams), focused on the importance of voice. Your narrator, he said, should have an identifiable voice. Bill asked us to imagine a voice so distinctive you would recognize it across a crowded barroom. (I think he knew he needed an example writers would understand!)

That attention to how your story gets told needs to be part of every storyteller’s planning. In my class we’ll listen to and discuss some distinctive voices, talk about how to develop our own storytelling voices, and how to decide consciously how you tell your
story. Generally, your most important character will serve as your first-person narrator or be closest to your third-person narrator. We’ll talk about why that’s true—and also how to know when to break those rules.

Thanks, Greg!

Click here to learn more about Greg Garrett‘s upcoming class.


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