The Unexpected Voice

I just finished reading John Dies at the End by David Wong. The book is creepy, surreal, psychedelic, manic, absurd, sarcastic and crassly funny—all in all a good read if you don’t mind an occasional (or frequent) dick joke or a major plot point revolving around dog poop.

The cover to both my copy of the book and the film adaptation.

John Dies at the End reminded me of several books I especially loved during my late teens and early twenties: The Invisibles (a graphic novel series about a group of guerrilla fighters battling an evil government conspiracy involving magical/ inter-dimensional beings), Tank Girl (a graphic novel series about a girl with a tank who drinks too much, kills things, and shags kangaroos), Transmetropolitan (a graphic novel series about a drug fueled, violently insane, manic reporter and his two filthy assistants who topples a ruthless and corrupt president in the distant future), Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (a graphic novel about a homicidal maniac), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (not a graphic novel…and I shouldn’t have explain it to you). My taste ran to self-destructive manic characters who either saw that the conventions of polite society were B.S. or saw that those conventions masked evil parasites (both metaphorical and literal in their respective universes). My taste made a certain amount of sense for an angst ridden and depressed young adult.

During that time I tried to write countless stories with similarly insane weird protagonists: a fraudulent medium who reads fortunes from the crumbs of potato chip bags and is always right, or a girl who after being turned into a hungry monster is pissed off that she been turned back into a human and is still hungry. Fun ideas maybe, but I never could get the stories to work. All I knew was I wanted to write in a mind-bending and profanity laden voice similar to those authors I loved. But with each attempt that I made, I only ended up writing bad copy laden with cliché. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the attention span required of those longer works, or maybe I didn’t do enough drugs.

But because I had a short attention span, I was writing poems the whole time. As I struggled with a story, I would get an idea for a poem and in an hour I could have the first draft down, and return to that frustrating story.  At the time I treated the poems like I treated journal entries—an expression of current emotion—that I was slightly more likely to share with my friends. I never thought it would develop into anything—though to be fair at that time in my life I assumed I’d be dead in the gutter by age of 30 and only went to college out of spite. I took a fiction class and wrote horrible stories involving sarcastic vampires then I took a poetry class and wrote horrible poems with some good lines. By the time I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing, I’d given myself over completely to poetry. After all my poetry improved by leaps and bounds, while my fiction was still a sad weak little thing. It was only in the last year of graduate school that I dared to start submitting my fiction, which by then had radically changed.

I think my focus on poetry is what changed my voice. Oh, I could still be creepy, sarcastic, surreal and even a little mad at times, but the focus shifted. I became interested in motivation, in images, in sound. I even wrote poems that were quiet and took their time. I still have a lot of anger in my work, but it is calmer, more focused, more self-aware, not the self-destructive manic energy I once so admired. And of course, this voice that emerged in my poems infected my fiction.

As I read John Dies at the End I couldn’t help but think, this is the type of book I once wanted to write. The moment almost tasted like failure—a goal I did not reach—but I’m still writing.  I’ve published work, and I and currently submitting my manuscript to publishers (fingers crossed). I simply did not meet my goals in the way I thought I would when I was 19 and 20 years old. So my writing now owes more to Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, and Ai than it does to Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and Jhonen Vasquez, that does not mean failure.

In the end it just turns out that I had different things to say, but isn’t that the nature of writing. You sit down with a blank page and head full of ideas, and by the time you finish covering the page with words you have something completely different from what was in your head. I may not write in the voice that I’d once wanted to, there are already writers doing that far better than I could, but I write in voice that is my own.

30 thoughts on “The Unexpected Voice

  1. Reblogged this on XBLACKCATX and commented:
    The current dilemma I am suffering from. I am not sure if this is just a temporary case of writer’s block or if I had lost my writing voice altogether…before I even found it. *insert passive emoticon* . Kudos to the author of this post, Jennifer Lynn Krohn

    • Thank you. I’m waiting until my husband finishes reading the book to watch the film. Did you enjoy it?

      • Yes actually. It was very different and weird and now I want to read the book!

        I think they could easily expand it to cover more than one film (in a good way, not to just make money, but to expand on the idea). Perhaps that is what they intend to do. I don’t know, but I would watch a sequel.
        The film is done in a modern, but similar vein to ‘Evil Dead’ and ‘Army of Darkness’.

  2. Nothing wrong with writing in your own voice and leaving the rest of it to others. Discovering voices is what makes reading fun and interesting.

  3. I love David Wong’s articles on Cracked.com and that brought me to this book, but I’m kind of disappointed with it so far (I’m about halfway through). I’m looking forward to the film though.
    I think I understand what you’re saying about your writing. I’d always wanted to write something in the vein of Chuck Palahniuk or Irvine Welsh, but I became a little older and wiser before I could really achieve that (I wrote a few things but nothing good enough to do much with). Now it’s hard to get myself back into that headspace, and I’m not sure I’d want to – even though I still admire writers who do so.
    I guess this is the point where I need to discover a new voice. One that is informed by the experiences and emotions of the past, but with a new perspective – more from the outside looking in. It sounds difficult, but it might be worthwhile.

    • Cracked.com is also how I found out about the book. I thought the halfway point was the hardest part to get through but that the end was awesome. Though this just may be my subjective opinion. I’ve notice that he uses a different voice in the book than he does in the articles.

      I tend to think that our voice develops over time, and that we are not always aware that it is there. As long as you keep writing, I’m sure that it’ll come to you.

      • Good to hear that you had similar feelings about the book at the halfway point. It gives me hope about the last half!
        I agree about his different voice in the book and the articles. I think tthat’s one of the main things that has made it difficult for me to enjoy the book. I came in expecting one thing and got something rather different. I think the articles are kind of “older, wiser Dave” and the book is more immersed in the “young, angsty Dave”. There’s a bit of crossover but it’s different enough to make it quite a shock.

  4. Yes! Someone else in love with JDatE! The way Wong wrote that book was truly memorable. But anyway, I find that my writing just gets better and better from reading more and more diverse books (and trust me, nothing gets much more diverse than JDatE), whether that’s blatantly stealing their ideas or using it as a template for my own writing, reading the building blocks of great authors.

  5. As the 20-year-old version of you right now, I found this post really interesting! I loved John Dies at the End and it was a complete eye opener. I’ve been reading for years, but never anything quite like JDatE, and immediately I wanted to write a story like that. I’m writing my second book now, and neither of them are really anything like JDatE. But oh well. That’s how life works.
    Thanks for a really interesting read!
    -Kiersten

  6. I may not write in the voice that I’d once wanted to, there are already writers doing that far better than I could, but I write in voice that is my own.— I’m on the same boat as you! :=)

  7. Interesting. This blog post makes me want to read Wong’s book, to agree that you probably didn’t do enough drugs to write like Hunter S. Thompson, and to want to read that fortuneteller/potato chip story.

    Having said that, after reading your blog post, I must say that your current writing style is confident and pleasant to read – so I’m glad that you found your voice. Good luck on your submissions.

    And seriously, could you share the potato chip story? ;)

    • Thank you. I’ve long ago lost the potato chip story–I never really got past the initial development of the character anyways. The way I see it, she is resting in my (metaphorical) drawer, and if I find the right story for her I’ll take her out.

  8. I didn’t read the book, but I saw the movie and I was fascinated by it (despite the crude humor). I’m glad you found your voice, and I agree that it does take a long while for it to be discovered.
    I tried writing so many children’s books when I was a teenager, only to throw them out in disgust. When I finally settled on publishing a novel, I was able to go back and flesh out one of those stories in a voice I knew was right.
    Never give up on your stories! They’ll surprise you with their clarity in the future, and then you’ll be able to finish that potato chip story (maybe even just as a short story) so I can read it!

    -AM

    • I’m definitely still working on my fiction, though I’ve put many of my stories away. I’m not sure that I’ll return to the medium with her potato chip bag, but I not against that possibility either.

  9. Absolutely great post. I agree and also believe that sometimes even though someone wants to write a particular genre, tat doesn’t mean you’ll be genius at it but there is always something that comes easy to you (for you, poetry) that you should follow. Glad you found yours. Good luck for your manuscript!

  10. . I’m writing a screenplay. My problem is not having writers block, it’s more like writers abuse. I’m the worst critic of myself . I’ll start a manuscript or a screenplay and start questioning the idea as to who would read it or want it as a movie. So I pack it away to the point I now have a small library of synopsis and partially written stories. But I go back and start another and I think about writing 24/7. Is this also a problem for any other writers. Or am I crazy. I’ve been up for 2 days writing this screenplay, and so far so good…keeping my fingers crossed and saying a prayer.

    • I think that this is definitely a problem for other writers; it is for me. I would suggest pushing forward and try to ignore that critical part of yourself. In my experience the first draft never matches what you imagined the story to be, but that you need to finish the draft. You can always revise. I found that Annie Lammott’s advice in “Shitty First Drafts” helpful when ever I start doubting my own writing.

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