On Writing

On Writing

Struggling to Find the Writer’s Voice

23 Sep , 2017  

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.

What IS Voice?

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.

Playing it Safe

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, missionpurpose, 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.

Scratching the Surface, Nicking Bone

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.

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8 Responses

  1. Alice Gerard says:

    I’m not sure what my writing voice is, after all of these years of writing. Oddly enough, I never really think of it, probably because I am a journalist so I’m usually focused on telling the story. I’ve branched out into creative nonfiction, and I just let the voices come out as they may. I’m doing other types of writing now, too, even poetry, and it’s all just about exploration and letting the voices come as they will.

  2. Jarvee says:

    Writers voice is usually muted by fear. There can be different fear involved but they all have the same bad effect on ourselves. When you are playing it safe – as you mentioned you can’t hear the writers voice. You are listening to other voices and trying to be something that you are not. Uniqueness will always find it’s way to audience, just listen yourself and turn the volume up! Thanks Holly for sharing!

    • That’s very true, “Jarvee.” An editor asked me to write an essay, years ago, on “Why I’m afraid to write a novel.” I thought it was a stupid assignment. I did it, anyway. It was enlightening. The fear was every bit as much “fear of success” (and the changes/future expectations that could bring to my life) as it was “fear of failure” (though there was that, too). “Playing it safe” is another way of saying, “refusing to be vulnerable and let your inner self shine, for fear someone out there won’t like you.” The funny thing is, most people prefer the real you.

      Speaking of which…

      Tell me a bit more about your company. And please, in future, post with your own name and email – not a company name / keywords and a free email address if posting on behalf of your company. I don’t mind giving a link to real people and real businesses, OCCASIONALLY, when they come here to have a real conversation. You’re doing it right, in that regard – but I do check every comment and link that passes through here.

  3. Voice and style are biggies for me – I believe people read what I write because of how I write it, among other things.

    It’s funny. When I write a scene in the new novel, there comes a point between when it has everything in it, but isn’t ‘right,’ and when it IS right. That’s the point where the whole scene is in the right voice (in my case, in the very personal voice of one of the three main characters), and there is no me left (no narrator, no asides, no opinions that are mine).

    So to get the voice for the story, I have to suppress my own. Maybe that’s why I blog, even though I know it sounds like me – and sometimes that’s clumsy and unpolished and mundane. There is a clear dividing line I have to overcome, or scenes aren’t finished yet. It is physical as well as mental.

    I love this writing thing.

    • I really think that all those voices ARE you – your voice. They have different things to say, and know what rings true from your characters. When it’s not “right,” it’s because you’re holding back and injecting your personal PUBLIC persona into a character that’s the incarnation of that something that you have to say. Our characters are not necessarily us; they act in ways we never would. But there are truths in fiction that are truer than facts, sometimes.

  4. Personally I think Noah Berlatsky sounds like a lot of the people these days who are going around telling people how they should write so they can make money blogging. Writing’s not only supposed to be for income; it’s nice, but it’s not the purpose; at least that’s how I feel.

    I feel like I’ve found my voice and style. I break away from it rarely and then only because I’m writing for someone else. However, I think that part also shows I can be flexible when I need to be, even if it’s not quite my voice.

    Meanwhile, for some reason the stuff I need to put in to identify myself didn’t initially come up; that was freaky! lol

    • Do not tell a professional writer that writing’s “not supposed to be for income.” That may be true of BLOGGING, but writing is a skill that’s at least as valuable to many as carpentry, or plumbing, or driving – you wouldn’t tell a builder, furniture maker, plumber, or chauffeur that he shouldn’t use his skills and talents to earn money, so don’t say it to a writer.

      Depending on who’s paying, you may not be paid for using your own voice as a writer; your pay, in fact, may be contingent on your ability to affect a corporate voice, or no “voice” at all. Books with multiple contributors need to look like they come from one; they need to be cohesive and unified and not obviously cobbled together by a committee (even if, sometimes, they are).

      But as bloggers, or solo book authors, we should have – as you, yourself, said elsewhere – a personality. Something that makes us worth reading, when the ten thousand others writing on the same topics aren’t (for any given reader). There’s room for all of us; just as all readers have their own personalities and tastes, so should writers, in order to reach those readers’ brains.

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