This is a column by Adele Annesi.
How can I as a writer develop my own style?
I’ve been writing most of my life, starting around age eight with poems and journal entries. Writing then was natural; I wrote because I had something to say about the world, and if there was no one to talk to, well, I could talk on paper. It wasn’t until after I’d been working a few years as a press correspondent and an editor that I discovered my voice. It happened when I wrote on a topic I felt passionate about, at a time when I was angry.
I had just come back from a trip to Italy. As a first-generation Italian American, I’d been there a dozen times. My mother was born there and so were my father’s parents so we went back from time to time to visit grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins. For someone raised an only child, I found each trip a revelation, welcome and not so welcome. I didn’t realize then that all those experiences were becoming part of me, the person I was growing into. But I couldn’t articulate what I’d learned until I gained distance from the experience. The anger came when I was deprived of it.
The trip to Italy that changed my writing was my first after having become a dual citizen. The process had taken over a decade because it had taken that long to gather the papers proving my mother’s ancestry. My appointment with the Italian consulate in New York to finalize the process wasn’t long after 9/11, so I was met at the gated entry by an Italian military police officer with a bandolier across his chest. The citizenship interview didn’t fare any better, and because the alert level that day was orange I despaired of getting out of the city let alone an acceptance.
Several weeks later, however, my Italian passport arrived. Stunned but elated, I began planning a trip—my first alone and my first as a citizen. The visit was fifteen days, the shortest time I’d ever spent in the country but whose every moment cried out for remembrance. When I returned to the U.S., I expected the pain of separation from family because I had experienced it before. What I didn’t expect was the outpouring of emotion that infused my story for the newspaper about the country that became the entrance essay for my MFA. My editor at the time, a woman who’d been with the paper for eons and wasn’t given to idle praise, called my attention to the difference in my work. “I think you’ve found your voice,” she said.
She was right. I found my voice because I found a topic about which I felt and still feel passionate: a country that represents family, intimacy, language, longing, beauty, experience, and as a fellow Italian later said, joy. It wasn’t until she made the observation that I realized that to me joy is what Italy most represents. As someone who grew up with Italian as a first language and who early in life was often displaced, I also came to understand that a sense of place is essential. In Italy, I not only found a sense of place but my identity, and in my identity my writing style and my voice.
My ongoing exploration of my heritage still forms the basis for much of my writing: short stories, a play, novels, essays. I’ve often wondered if the country’s very volcanic soil has made its way into the DNA of its people and into my work. Yet, what I also realized is that when I explore a subject about which I feel strongly, the stronger, clearer and more confident my writing becomes, and that’s where voice and style come from. Voice is how you as a writer sound, especially when you care about a topic, and while your style may vary depending on your project, as the clothing you wear depends on everything from your mood to the weather, your voice is your signature: uniquely you.
Oh, about the anger that made that first Italy piece stand out, I was angry because like a child called in from a really great play date, I had to come home. Here’s the story’s opening line: “The Adriatic sun has bleached the beach stones white and blanched the sky to powder blue. Waves stroke the shore in an insistent motion, the sound, lulling. Summer has come to the shore of central Italy.”
Adele Annesi is an award-winning writer, editor and teacher. A co-founder of the Ridgefield Writers Conference, Adele has published work in various journals, including 34th Parallel, The Fairfield Review, Hotmetalpress, Fringe Blog, Midway Journal, Miranda Literary Magazine, The Pittsburgh Quarterly,and the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her work has also been anthologized for Chatter House Press and Fairfield University, where she received an MFA in creative writing. Her essay on Italian citizenship is part of the Clarion Award-winning Essays About Life Transitions by Women Writers,and her flash fiction has been adapted for the stage. A professor of English and writing, Adele regularly posts for Word for Words, her editing blog for writers.