We constantly talk about “voice” in writing. We might say a writer has a “strong voice,” or a “commercial voice,” or that their writing seems “honest” or “authentic” or “unique.” On the other hand, it’s often difficult to helpfully define “voice.” I can certainly describe an author’s voice by using adjectives such as humorous, wry, dark, et cetera, but I only have my own, homespun idea of what the Platonic ideal definition of voice may be.
What most helps me understand voice is the idea of voice as personality.
Voice is like Dr. Frankenstein’s spark; it imbues a work with life. Voice makes a work breathe and speak, and, in that mysterious process which is reading, voice allows a work to interact with its reader.
Voice is also, like so many of the best things in life, most easily defined by what it is not. We’ve all read, or heard, something in which the voice just isn’t up to snuff. The words cling lifeless to the page, a rote exercise in grammar or penmanship. What do you do, with that piece of paper upon which words are written, some of them quite artfully, but in which there is no life? In other words, how do you learn, or teach, voice?
To be honest, I don’t know if it’s possible to do so. I don’t know if voice is something that can be taught from scratch. I think it most naturally comes from absorbing story and syntax early and voraciously through reading. I know my own voice comes from the constant stew of words I’ve had burbling since I started reading, and that I feed constantly, like a sourdough starter.
That said, voice can be nurtured and, most importantly, we can work towards stripping away that which impedes our voice.
What does that mean? My best example is in my own writing, and how doing my Ph.D. helped me to learn about the process of writing and to see writing not so much as inspiration but as hard work and discipline. But my Ph.D. also taught me about voice. I had to become very acquainted with my own authorial voice because, for my thesis, I had to strip it out of my writing. There’s nothing like being forced to remove something to help you identify it. My voice is sarcastic, humorous, and self deprecating, but it also has an edge of sweetness and a frisson of idealism. None of which are appropriate for academic writing. So I had to strip them out of my writing—to take out my voice—so that my ideas were highlighted rather than my personality. And that’s where I made the connection between the idea of personality and the idea of voice.
You’ll read some writers who are their books. Their personalities are so deeply embedded in their writing that reading their book is like having a conversation with them. Other writers pull from some deep, inner part of their being that never sees the light of day, otherwise. But whether or not the work reflects the actual writer, what a good work definitely does reflect is a personality. It has its own life, its own soul.
So we’re back to the idea of teaching . . . how can you teach the transference of souls?
Fear not, those of you who don’t feel you’ve found your voice. I think many people have a voice that’s been buried. So many things we grow up with—pressure to conform, pressure to write and think a certain way, pressure to hide ourselves beneath masks, pressure to always be strong and never vulnerable—get in the way of our voice. Therefore one thing we can teach is how to strip away those roadblocks to voice. That’s where learning good practice, good discipline, and good editorial skills comes in. It’s also about finding confidence and ceasing to fear revealing oneself. I was so anxious about what people would think about me after reading my first book, that, for the first time in my life, I had a series of night terrors about being in my own Truman Show. Revealing yourself, stripping yourself down for the world to see, is frightening. Writing fiction gives you a bit of a buffer, but the personality behind it is still, to a greater or lesser extent, going to be your personality. And that’s frightening.
But that fear can be overcome with practice, with diligence, and with confidence. Like strong personalities, strong voices may not be for everyone, but they hook the people who appreciate them.
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