What’s my Voice?
December 13, 2006 | Written by admin
Someone sent in this question: "What do you mean when you encourage people to find their voice?"
It’s funny, but the more I write, the more I sound like myself.
And the more I sound like myself, the better "voice" I have in my writing.
I keep hearing people at writer’s conferences who more or less want all writers to sound the same. That may be why I keep seeing the same novel come across my desk — instead of Fiona and Drake in Scotland, the setting is now Becky and Hank on the prairie, but the story is still the same. Only the costumes have changed. Frankly, it’s boring. And it’s the curse of writing conferences. (Don’t get me wrong — I love writing conferences. I just don’t want everybody coming out of them sounding like clones.)
Part of maturing as a writer is figuring out how you are unique. It’s been said that voice is nothing more than how a writer decides to uniquely break the rule of grammar. I don’t really agree… I think "voice" is found in figuring out how YOU would uniquely express yourself on a particular issue in certain circumstances. It’s easy to spot — when you read it, the words flow out. (That’s why I always read everything I write OUT LOUD. If it’s bad, I’ll know right away because my ear will tell it’s wrong.) Fran Lebowitz once said, "In conversation you can use timing, a look, inflection, pauses. But on the page all you have is commas, dashes, the amount of syllables in a word. When I write, I read everything out loud to get the right rhythm."
Voice is that quality in your writing that is uniquely you. Nobody else really captures it. Nobody else would say it that way. Your personality is revealed through your vocabulary, your rhythm, and the images you use. Frankly, with all the talk about "branding" in recent years, I fear we’ve lost a lot of dialogue about voice, which is considerably more important — because unless you have something great to say, there’s little reason for anyone to want to "brand" you.
Something else that needs to be said about voice is the importance of imitation. I read a book recently in which George Harrison told how, as a young man, he would listen over and over to Chuck Berry play something, in order to imitate his guitar licks. Then he’d show up at a Beatles rehearsal and say, "Listen to this!" and Paul or John would invariably tell him, "We’ve got to put that into a song somewhere." Their music was developed from imitating the good music of others. Paul McCartney has talked about how all of the Beatles’ music was derivative.
Similarly, Chuck Berry’s music was based on the musicians who came before him. Listen to him talk some time, and you’ll hear him explain how church gospel music and tin-pan-alley jazz influenced his musical tastes. All music, like all writing, is derivative. It’s progressive, building on those who have gone before us. The occasional brilliance of a Shakespeare or a Twain inspires thousands of others to first imitate, then create their own voice. So there is no shame in starting with writing that is imitative. Indeed, many writing instructors have their students do this very thing, in order to find out why a certain style works.
If you’re struggling with voice, try to find the voice of another that speaks to you, then imitate it for a while. See if that doesn’t help you progress in your own writing. Joan Didion re-typed passages of Ernest Hemingway as a teenager in order to mimic his style. I used to rewrite the letters of Groucho Marx so I, too, could be a complete smart-aleck. Don’t think your words and ideas are completely unique — you’ve been shaped by your teachers, your mentors, your critique group, even the books you’ve read. YOUR writing is derivative.
I suppose someone right now is thinking, "Wait a minute…first you say you’re tired of seeing the same old thing…THEN you encourage us to imitate other writers?!"
Yeah. So sue me. I’m just trying to encourage writers to find their voice by exploring the voices of other writers. Think about the question for a few minutes… Whose writings have influenced you? Whose writings do you love? Who do you want to sound like? If I’m correct, and nearly all writing is derivative, than it seems like a good idea to start with imitation. Think of yourself as a teenager — you probably tried on various personalities (and clothing) in an attempt to figure out the "real you." Imitating other writers can serve a similar path.
You might remember the scene in the movie "Finding Forrester" where Sean Connery gives his protege a first paragraph from an old article, then tells him to finish writing it. Sometimes inspiration and voice come from exactly that. When I read Tom Bodet’s "End of the Road," it helped me find my voice for writing warm, funny stories about growing up in Witch Hazel, Oregon. It was by reading Flannery O’Connor’s "Everything that Rises Must Converge" that I realized I didn’t have to explain everything. And it was my reading of Ricky Bragg’s "All Over But the Shoutin" that helped me understand how I could write about family. Sure, there was imitation in my prose for a while — but it helped me move forward.
Look at writing that moves you, that helps you grow, that provokes a reaction in you, that inspires you to want to be better — that’s a great place to start to explore voice. In understanding the voice of other writers, you’ll better understand your own voice.
So if you go to a writing conference next year and learn how to be a better writer, or you get inspired by some author, that’s wonderful. Then move on so that you sound like yourself. I love seeing inventive, interesting, and inspirational writing, but much of what actually comes in the door doesn’t have that unique flavor. If you find your voice, you’ll make yourself a better writer and stand a MUCH better chance of getting published.