Struggling to “find your voice“ as a writer? How can it be that you’ve lost it? It’s like looking for the car keys clutched in your hand.
It’s helpful to define what “voice” is and what it isn’t. Jon Jorgenson wrote, “The artistic voice is a longing to create what does not yet exist, and therefore bring order out of the chaos that this life can be.” He likens it to the story of Genesis, wherein the word of God brings forth the world and all that inhabits it. Let there be light… Voice, then, is not merely personal writing style or even tone and attitude; it is the manifestation of the original, creative spirit within us.
In contrast, Noah Berlatsky says that “Voice Isn’t the Point of Writing. [F]or the vast majority of working scribblers, writing is less about finding your own voice than about figuring out how to say something someone, somewhere will pay you for, or at least listen to.”
Some writers insist that they write only for themselves. “Take it or leave it,” they say. If you don’t understand or appreciate their ramblings, they weren’t meant for you in the first place, or you’re just not on their “mental level.” Some write selflessly, happily pandering to the whims of a fickle audience. For some of us, writing is about communication. Communication is one brain’s key, turning the tumblers of the locks inside another’s mind to plant the seeds of new or different ideas. Sometimes those seeds are nourishing and full of vitamins; sometimes, they grow exotic, purple-tentacled flowers with a hundred green, glowing eyes. But why should readers listen to us, as opposed to the tens of thousands of other writers, many of whom have said or are saying essentially the same or very similar things?
Because your creative spirit is the key – and that key is unique. Somewhere, there’s a mind waiting to be unlocked by it – maybe a million minds ready for the planting. No one but you can speak or write with your voice.
Joel Boggess reminds us that “Voice comes from the Latin root vocare, which is also the root word for vocation.” Vocation is synonymous with calling, life’s work, mission, purpose, or function. Voice is your perspective on everything; voice is what you choose to notice, question, think, and talk about. Voice is how you talk about the world once you’ve noticed, questioned, and thought about it.
He goes on: “When you spend all your time trying to fit in, you forget who you really are – or, worse, you feel wrong for being yourself.” And yet, so many writers are determined to do just that – to play it safe, to fit in, to repeat the formula of successful writers who have paved a well-worn path before them. Imitation, at the start, is no sin. We imitate those minds that hold the keys that tickle the tumblers of our own minds’ locks. But imitation is creative limitation; the goal, ultimately, isn’t mere creation but original expression of that creative spirit within.
The writer who values safety above all will wrap their thoughts in a bland cloak of non-committal, unopinionated, uncontroversial inoffensiveness. Withholding personality from their writing, the too-careful writer withholds their voice from readers, and may even lose their own sense of it over time.
The struggle, then, isn’t so much to “find our voice” as writers, but to rediscover the thing that has always been there – the thing we’ve buried in the safe and bland.
Walter Winchell wrote that “Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. …’Why, no,’ dead-panned Red. ‘You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.‘“ Walt Whitman wrote the poem, “Song of Myself,” which, if you saw “Dead Poets Society,” you’ll know from the line, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” The poem is all about digging deep, reveling in our little part of the whole of creation without our individuality being swallowed up by it.
That struggle to “find our voice,” to be one completely unique blade of grass in a green meadow full of other blades of grass, is often a struggle against superficiality – the refuge of the too-careful writer. When we’re just scratching the surface, we tend to write in generalities. The only cure is to pry into the crevices and name things – to eschew the vague in favor of the concrete and specific. To commit, rather than to fence-sit. To sweat beads of blood and nick bone.
The poets know this. Even non-fiction writers would do well to study poetry and practice it, learning to harden the plentiful carbon lumps of vague ideas into the clear precision of diamonds.
To write well, read extensively. Then put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, and write. Practice, practice, practice – always striving to learn and grow, content with knowing that perfection is unattainable and static. Once that pinnacle were reached, if it could be reached, what point – what joy – would there be in the act of creation?
Read voraciously. Learn insatiably. Ask questions and listen carefully. In “How Questions Can Help You Find Your Voice,” Laura Munson writes of a time when she found her voice by losing it – literally:
So how do you find your voice? Maybe go mute. Or mute-ish for a few days. Make a conscious effort to take a beat before you speak. If you’re not a big talker, let yourself off the hook and just listen. The world will go on without our commentary. We’re not going to lose our job or a loved one over a few lost words. Tell them you’re on vocal rest, if you must. Don’t tell them why. And use this time very intentionally to write down your observations. Then, turn them into powerful questions that you answer on the page for your eyes only. Notice what you have to say and how you have to say it, without any pressure. You might be surprised. Now bring this back into your interactions with people (and if you’re a writer, in your work), and see if you feel more empowered. See what your voice sounds like now.
Other voices may bounce around inside the skull, clamoring for release. They will creep onto the page, crawl stealthily between the lines, peek out from beneath the serifs like mischievous imps. Let them play and dance upon the page, but erase the ones that don’t ring true. Truth – and our own artistic voice – lies in the knife-edge of words that nick bone and creep perilously close to the soul.