I constantly struggle with developing my unique voice. Ever since I was young, this was something I personally found to be important. Loving Yasunari Kawabata and Leo Tolstoy, I couldn't decide which voice was my favorite. So, I wanted my voice to be a combination of all the great writers I encountered, and usually I accomplished nothing because I didn't even know where to start.
Only recently did I come to understand that these writers were not opposites of each other. Great writers cannot be placed on two ends of the same spectrum. Sure, if you focus on a particular element, they may appear to be that way. But, each writer is unique, like a point on a star, or a branch on a phylogenetic tree. They may originate from a common source, but they evolve and move in their own direction. It was this realization that helped me to recognize my own voice.
Voice, for me, is a combination of every technical component of writing. Voice includes vocabulary, sentence construction, rhythm, metaphor usage, punctuation, pacing, length, perspective, point of view, and many other components. For every page we write, we make hundreds of small decisions that affect our voice. With all of these decisions, it's impossible to create anything that is a successful compromise of previously written work.
Now, while I think it's important to study the writing of others, whenever I try to consciously use a technique I've learned from someone else, I feel myself being pulled away from my own sincere thoughts. If I study a writer to find out how they transition from scene to scene, then I learn how they transition from scene to scene, not how life transitions. If I study how someone creates dialog, then I learn how they create dialog, not how dialog really sounds. Every attempt to use someone else's technique suddenly makes me use a different part of my brain and less of my heart. It feels like study rather than play. It feels like resistance.
For me, finding my own voice is a matter of following the path of least resistance. Whenever someone else's book changes my style, I become a follower of that book and its writer. A book that tries to be the next Anna Karenina may always be inferior to the original. It may be limited. Its glory, if it finds any, may have a lifespan. The components of that writing that will be unique will probably only exist between those followed elements in the story--maybe even only in the places where the writer has failed to follow accurately.* On the other hand, a book that tries to be itself will be harder to compare to anything before it, and, thus, harder to make inferior.
I'm sure that I will always flip through the pages of great books as I'm writing, but I find myself trying harder and harder to invent my own technique and let my writing flow out of me as resistance-free as possible. The better I get at writing, the more I realize the importance of not forcing myself to sound like anything at all. When I can no longer hear my voice because it is so perfectly tailored to me, that's probably when I'll have created something truly unique for the first time.
*This week I'm planning at least three posts about voice. And, as the opinions I'm expressing are not all my own, they will contradict each other. The failure that I mention here will come up in a more positive light later.