Finding Your Voice
In Report from the Field: This Voice of Mine, writer Jody Keisner remembers a day in a writing class when her teacher read an essay she’d written to the class and then said, “You have no voice.”
She was stunned. While she didn’t like his attitude or the casual way he made the comment, she discovered later that he was right. When I taught writing, I can’t imagine telling a student something like that in such a demeaning way.
Voice is often a problem because young writers either don’t know who they are or they’ve been told to read and then they try to write like somebody else. Voice is probably more difficult for women and minorities because they have fewer published role models to use for inspiration.
Grammar Girl says that Voice is “is the distinct personality, style, or point of view of a piece of writing or any other creative work. Voice is what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells ‘American Idol’ contestants to make a song their own and not just do a note-for-note karaoke version.”
As writers, we learn to craft different kinds of pieces with different voices. That is to say, when I write news stories, grant applications, and magical realism fiction, the results look like they were written by different people. The reason is simply that the intent of the writing is to communicate something in a meaningful way within the scope of the end-product you’ve chosen.
Personally, I think it takes a while for a writer to discover and become comfortable with the voice s/he uses for the kinds of work s/he does. There’s a lot to be said for seeing how established writers do it whether you’re writing computer documentation or fantasy fiction. Most of us aren’t geniuses like Mozart who suddenly turn out wonderful material when we’re in grade school. I look back at stuff I wrote when I was in high school and cringe. While I see the beginnings of my voice, I hadn’t found it yet.
We get to a point, I think, where we write the way we write and always stay within the realm of our voice. Do we reach perfection? Usually not. Probably never. But while we’re still searching for our voice, we’re probably going to try a lot of things to see how they work. The first thing you notice, though, is that if you have to strain to write a certain way, that way isn’t your voice. It’s not your voice because it isn’t you. It still has too much karaoke in it.
When I came out of movies as a kid, I’d often go around for days filled with the values of the main characters. A lot of us do this when we finish a great novel. We see the author doing something, using certain words, and suddenly find some of his/her style creeping into our conversations and online posts. That’s probably normal, but when we do that, we’re writing under the influence, so to speak. If a writer sees a favorite author in his/her writing, then that writer hasn’t found a unique voice yet.
It’s aggravating, I know, to have a teacher or an editor tell us we have no voice or that our work sounds like the year’s recent bestseller novels. Rushing out to find one’s voice after hearing (or realizing) something like that probably means that what we come up with won’t really be our voice. To use lame comparisons, voice has to be as natural as breathing or like never forgetting how to ride a bicycle.
If you have to think about it, you haven’t found it yet.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.”