Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Can Your Voice Be Found?

A few days ago, Scott wrote a post on voice, and (as sometimes tends to happen) he and I disagreed on something. Based on my own personal experience, I believe that a writer can discover some sort of natural or authentic voice. Scott believes that "we find ways to write that achieve our goals for what we're writing, and when we do it's nice and enjoyable and easier. It feels 'natural' and 'like us.'"

So, he asked me to expand on what I thought was this natural, authentic voice...probably so that he can disagree with me again. Yes, Mr. Bailey, I'm psychic.

An authentic voice

Without getting into too many details, in 2008-2009, I had the opportunity to spend much less time on my day job and much more time on my fiction writing. During that time, I tried a bunch of literary experiments and discarded a lot of ideas I had about what I wanted to write. I felt like I got all of my writerly promiscuity out of the way in just six short months.

When that happened, I found myself at a loss for words. Suddenly, all of the techniques, all of the poetics, all of the technical tools that I considered to be in my arsenal had been culled. I no longer relied on Faulkner's technique of splicing words together or McCarthy's stringing together of actions with the word "and." I stopped making my characters take quick steps like Anna Karenina, and I didn't let them blush to the hairline anymore. In other words, I stopped using other writers' inventions in a major way.

What I was left with was myself and my observations of the real world. If my character couldn't blush to the hairline (because, after all, Tolstoy came up with that), I had to observe real people in their real embarrassing situations and discover for myself how they responded. I needed to pay attention to myself and see how I responded when embarrassed. If I couldn't link together several actions with "and" I had to come up with my own sentence structures based on how I organized my own thoughts.

To me, this was finding my voice. I was writing based on what I was observing in life and how I was organizing those observations. That to me is authenticity.

Of course I couldn't completely be free. After all, I still had concepts like the metaphor to use. I didn't erase entirely my knowledge of the English language, and that in a sense will always be polluted by what I'v read before. But, I felt like I was working from a much simpler base.

In many ways, this made my life a whole lot harder. Writing progressed at a much slower pace. Everything I wrote required much more thinking for myself. But, my life also got a lot easier because I felt like I was making up my own answers and solving my own problems. When I was stealing techniques from Tolstoy, I was always comparing myself to him. He was an apple, and I was some sort of mutant, sub-apple. But, when I was inventing my techniques, I was suddenly an orange. And, even if I could imagine myself tasting better or glowing brighter to reach my own standards, I was comforted in knowing that I would have my own slot at the farmer's market.

I think that when we stop using other writers' voices, we start having to invent our own, and that comes out on the page. I believe that readers find these sorts of authentic voices more compelling simply because they are totally new ways of looking at the world. Now, more than ever, I feel like I am observing life, and I'm observing it because I want to write about it in my own voice.


  1. I like how you described finding your voice. I know I've picked up techniques from the authors I read, but I know my writing style well enough to realize that no matter how much I admire Patricia McKillip's poetic voice, it's not mine, and it doesn't have to be.

  2. This is a great dissection of your path, Davin. I agree with your point of view as well. I know for a fact that although I don't always write using my whole voice, when I do, it feels completely authentic and the words just come out right. As I progress and improve my writing skill, I find that vein more often. I don't have the background of having read the "greats of literature", so I have to rely on my own sense of when the writing is good. That sense comes from hearing my writer's voice when I re-read the good stuff I've put down.

  3. I really like how you put it: voice is the result of how we process life.

    Thanks for freeing us up to be oranges. Oh wait, you've taken the orange, so I think I'll be an almond.

  4. Sandra, I like that phrase "it doesn't have to be." That's a very releasing way to think of it. :)

    Eric, I'm progressing too, and often I fall back into using other voices. I have a feeling for me it will be a lifelong battle. But, you're right. I do seem to be able to stay with myself more often.

    Yat-Yee, Oh, the almond is a great choice! :) Michelle might want to be a cashew.

  5. I vote to be a cashew. Would that work?

    I really like this post, Davin. A LOT. You express quite poignantly a writing journey that I know has been a lot of work for you, and hopefully rewarding so far.

    I think most new writers have an amazing voice. Many of them dive right in using their own resources. Then, as they become aware, they begin to read more and borrow more, and their voice gets lost. Then they may go through an experience like yours - of getting in touch with their own style instead of relying on others.

    Or maybe that's just my own experiences. Yeah, it is. I think this is why we've both been saying that we feel like we're in similar spaces with our writing right now - I feel like I'm starting to rely on my own writing style, making it up as I go along, discovering it - more than grasping at other writers for inspiration. It is very difficult, I agree.

  6. I want to be a bananana (Of course, I know how to spell banananana. I just don't know when to stop). Often, my critique group will say, in the middle of a scene, "Now that is just pure Chuck." Should I be glad about that or ashamed?

  7. This is very helpful to me, since I've been struggling to revise an older work with more unique "voice".

    Thanks, Davin, and Scott by proxy! ;)

  8. My issue is with the idea of "authenticity" and the value of "uniqueness." I don't believe either of those things actually exist. And if they do, I don't think they have any value at all.

    My writing style changes (sometimes drastically) depending on venue and context. Emails to friends versus emails to coworkers versus blog posts versus blog comments versus business letters versus prose (and my prose is different for each novel and likely each short story as well). So all of this is me, and all of it's "my voice" and all of it's different.

    Hemingway's prose in "The Old Man and the Sea" is different from his prose in "The Sun Also Rises" which is different from the prose in "A Farewell to Arms." All of it is Hemingway, and all of it is different.

    So I return to my idea that, for the piece we are writing, we find things that work and when they work we struggle less and are unselfconscious and it feels like the writing is more natural, and therefore more our own voice. I argue that this is just us beoming more familiar with our tools.

    Mostly, really, I think the idea of a unique voice is overrated. I don't care if your voice is "authentic" or "unique." I care if you can write a coherent narrative, though. Write well and pay attention to the needs of the story, and voice will follow.

    Also, it's possible our disagreement is one of terminology only. But I worry that people think too much about themselves and some idea of "self expression" that in no way helps the actual writing. If it's all about your needs, then keep a journal. If it's about writing good fiction, then concentrate on the story's needs.

  9. ...Visual artists often say something like, "I draw what I see." This is also what I've been doing as a writer; I write what I see and feel, in the way I see and feel it, and I work hard on sticking to that.

    I think every writer writing in a known language has been influenced by other writings, but that's different than intentionally being derivative. Derivativeness has always been a no-no for me as a writer and as a reader.

    I think most modern fiction suffers from three things: it's about nothing, it says nothing, and it's obviously derivative. Many classic short stories for example--they had odd memorable content quirks, the stories contained unrealistic oddities, they came down on some "side." They had substance beyond a simple reading of their words. In contrast, today's writings are too much about the words themselves; they're very obviously crafted for the craft itself. They're writing for writing's sake, or art for art's sake.

    In my opinion, you're right about what an authentic and unique voice is, and using that's very important when striving to produce great fiction especially. Unfortunately, I think you may be wrong about what readers find compelling because most seemingly want to hear derivative voices. Look at the works that get the most reads, the most buys over the short term--they're derivative. Over the long-term, the classics--they have more uniqueness; that's partly why they lasted.

    But too many of those works and their authors had trouble gaining acceptance in their times. It seems that the more different the voice, the more years readers need to get used to hearing that voice.

    So I think a practical lesson here is: if you want "your" work read while you're alive, be derivative on the page. If you're writing uniquely, be prepared to be ignored.

    One last thing: having said all that, I think there's a difference between a creator's overall writing voice and each of her written work's voices; both voices are present in the final products. Each written work's specific contents will make demands on the creator's overall voice, and sometimes the two voices will argue, but the specific work's voice should probably be the loudest--and win the fight. The creator should be writing a fiction with its own voice more than she's writing HER voice. Ideally, the specific work's voice should be in the foreground; the creator's overall voice should be in the background. Both should be recognizable and unique and always present, but simply occupy different places in the fiction.

  10. It seems to me that there's writing and then there's writing.
    For instance, I'm using a certain voice to write this comment. It's "my" voice. If you met me, you could probably actually hear my voice in my writing.
    When I write a first draft, I use kind of a similar voice. This happened, that happened, she said this, he did that, blah blah.
    But then in revision, I try to create a unique voice for each character, as if they were writing the story (except in 3rd person)
    I did an experiment. There is an algorithm online that determines the gender of any piece of writing. My chapters in a female POV ranked higher on the female side of the scale than those written in a male POV. I can't actually get inside a woman's head, but I can imagine how one might think, and hopefully write that way.
    Interesting conversation.

  11. Michelle, I've heard from so many writers that they do sort of lose themselves in the intermediate stage (that I consider myself in as well.) In the beginning we have the heart of what we want to write, or the energy of it or something. Then, the technique sometimes buries that as we're learning to use our tools. Then, we have to go back and hunt that thing down again. It's sort of like calibrating, I think.

    Chuck, You can be a bannanannnannannanana if you want. :)

    Tere, I'm glad this was useful to you. We often wonder if anything we say is useful. :)

    Scott, in this case, I don't think it's a difference in terminology. I do think some of the natural quality comes from us getting better with our tools, but for me and writing experience it was also the result of me writing based on inspirations from a different source. I used to think that uniqueness was unimportant. I wanted to write to amuse myself. And, while I still write to amuse myself, I'm not at a place where I need that uniqueness. I feel like I'm targeting my book for a very unique audience these days: me. And that requires a unique writing voice. Granted, I try to make that writing voice invisible, so in a way maybe this doesn't matter. But, I do care more about being unique now than I did over the last several years. I also think our own voices can have variation, like you bring up for yourself or Hemingway. But, to me the inspiration of those voices is important. And I'd argue that that comes through in the writing.

    F. P., Okay, I think you're right for many readers. I do think readers seek a level of comfort in the familiar, so if one's unique voice is too unexpected or new somehow, that would turn most readers off. That is disappointing. I think a unique writer can still have their work read while they're alive, but perhaps by a very small fraction of the population only.

    Andrew, Both you and F. P. mentioned this idea of two levels of voices, and I agree. There is room for variability within a writer's repertoire. The Beatles also comes to mind. That's cool what you do with the voices in your revisions. I do that for things like perspective, but I've never worked on it with voice. It probably happens for me some, but due to my subconscious rather than something I work on outright.

  12. Ooops--one more thing.

    I define a writer's overall voice as all the usual content, language, phrasing, plotting, and structural choices the writer makes that directly come from the writer's probably unique personality.* Occasionally I've written fictions where the specific fictional content, or the specific plot, or main character--this went against my usual choices, the choices I like making in other words, the choices I feel are ME. But the fictions demanded I go against me and so I did.

    I don't always like what I've written, but I work on staying true to what I've written. I think that's more important than staying true to me. But I do always prefer staying true to both.

    (*You can probably tell that I think voice can be everything and come from everything.)

  13. "if you want "your" work read while you're alive, be derivative on the page. If you're writing uniquely, be prepared to be ignored."

    So every living writer who has a wide readership is derivative, and any "unique" voices are being ignored? Huh. And, bullshit.

  14. Nice strawpeople there, Scott.

  15. I don't mean to put words in your mouth, but I do wonder what you mean by that statement. If I'm reading you wrong, please tell me how.

  16. Scott, we don’t agree quite often, I think you keep butting post-heads with me, so I’m not posting here anymore. It’s your blog, say and do what you want, but I won’t be commenting anymore, especially because it seems I can’t agree with one of you without another of you trying to debate me over that.

    W.r.t. your response about my post:

    You ignored the very beginning of my paragraph and the sentence right before that very beginning, which sentence was a lead in to that next paragraph. “It seems that the more different the voice, the more years readers need to get used to hearing that voice.” I think the implication from this and what I wrote before that about many classics: a unique voice will take a long time to gain acceptance. I think that’s almost always true.

    I also said, again in that part you didn’t quote and apparently just ignored: “So I think a practical lesson here is”--I said I THINK. I injected doubt there. I made clear that this paragraph was my opinion, and it’s based on my personal experience and the experiences of other writers. I’ve come across a few modern writers writing extremely bizarre-in-voice work--they always had no or almost no readers.

    I think that occasionally society gets this right and unique voices are luckily rewarded in their lifetimes. Most times, society doesn’t get this right and unique voices are ignored for a long time, sometimes till after the voices die, sometimes for forever. Not all writers with wide readerships are derivative writers, at least from the ones whose works I’ve read.* But I do think nearly all of them are, like over 90%, yes. Just like most people in general (seem to be to me), most writers are followers, not leaders. They like herding, they like writing to rules, they like writing to trends, they like acceptance among their writing peers, they like being part of a history or generation or movement. And this shows in their writings.

    (*Likewise, just because writing went through a long acceptance time doesn’t necessarily mean that writing is unique.)

  17. I believe a writer can "find" their voice. I even went to a workshop once that was supposed to help us. It was in the idea of non fiction essays.

    I love your idea of observing and seeking your own defining phrases.

    Great post.!


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