What is/How do You Find Your Voice as a Writer?
Floating in some cosmic space between our brains and the realm of the muses lies each of our voices. Like some basterdised Disney patronous, they dance in the void waiting for us to “discover” them.
As great as that might sound to some people, it is—of course—utter and complete crap. Still, this is how most of my writing teachers up until grad school made it seem. In the seven years that I spent teaching college writing courses, I often saw colleagues—intentionally or unintentionally—propagate this idea.
I’d hear things like “It will just come to you the more that you do it” and “open up and let your personality fall onto the page.” This leaves the serious student and/or aspiring writer with no clue how to go about finding their voice or even what a writer’s voice is.
In reality (a lovely place of vivid images and concrete details) a writer’s voice doesn’t just come to them. It takes study and work to develop your voice as a writer.
But, before you can hunt for something, you first have to know what it is (unless you’re hunting for the inner story in a piece of creative nonfiction, but that’s a different post altogether).
A writer’s voice, in its simplest form, is their diction and syntax. That is, the words they choose (diction) and the order they choose to put them in on the page (syntax). It’s worth noting that diction is not the same thing as vocabulary. One (vocabulary) is the pool of words from which you can draw, the other (diction) is the words you choose to pull out of that pool. Having a large vocabulary doesn’t guarantee good diction, and someone with a small vocabulary may still have strong diction.
This same basic formula (Diction + Syntax = Voice) can be applied to our metaphorical speaking voices. Think of three people you know. Now, imagine that you’ve asked each of them to a movie which they have no interest in seeing. How would they each turn you down? My wife, the ever radiant Obsessive Bookseller, would probably say “Well, I’d love to do something with you, just not that.” While my friend Jared might say, “Oh, hell yeah! Then you can bash rusty nails into my eyes!” At its core, they are both saying basically the same thing but through vastly different voices.
So, how can a writer find their voice (actually a sophisticated and skilled writer can have multiple voices, but, again, that’s a future post)? Besides praying to the spirts of Tolkien and Fitzgerald for it to spontaneously appear inside your skull, you can follow former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins‘ advice. Speaking at the Whitehouse’s poetry day event, Collins said, “Your voice has an external source…It is lying in other peoples’ [writing]. It is lying on the shelves of the library. To find your voice you need to read deeply…you have to look outside yourself. Read widely. Read all the [writing] you can get your hands on.” He went on to add, “In your reading, you’re searching for something…You’re searching for [writers] that make you jealous.” Here, Collins is speaking about finding your voice as a poet, but it applies to any form of writing. I would add that you should search for writing that disgusts you as well. Find what turns you on and off, literarily (not literally) speaking of course.
As is often the case, the truth is that you have to knuckle down and do some hard work. Read a lot. Read diversely. Read like a writer, and by that I mean that you should analyze the writing as you read it. When you find something you like, something Collins would say makes you jealous, try to figure out why you like it. When you read a scene that blows you away, mark it, reread it, analyze why it blew you away. How is the writer doing that? What tools are they using and how are they using them?
That’s the way it seems to work across mediums. Your favorite musician went through it. It’s how they discovered their influences. Great visual artists in every age have gone through it. All of these people understood the importance of respecting the craft. They understood what it means to be a student of their art.
Because writing is second nature for most people today, aspiring writers often take craft for granted. Or, worse, they feel that studying how other writers did it well will rob them of their authenticity, of their voice (stop and think about how counterproductive that reasoning is). I’ve actually had, on multiple occasions, students sit across from me and claim that they want to be a writer because they read King or Rowling and thought “Gee that seems easy, I bet I can do that.”
So, here is your prompt for this week. Make a list of your five favorite scenes/moments from whatever you’ve read recently. Then, go reread those passages. Take notes! Figure out what the author has done to make those moments so powerful.
I’d love to hear how this prompt goes for you! Leave a comment letting me know.