Finding a Voice

photo by martinak15

Therese here. It is my great pleasure to introduce you to our newest WU contributor, novelist Meg Rosoff. Meg’s first book, How I Live Now, has won several awards including the Guardian Award, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Branford Boase Award; and has been made into a film, to be released later this year. Her second novel, Just In Case, won the Carnegie Medal. Rosoff’s other novels include What I Was, The Bride’s Farewell and There Is No Dog, as well as three picture books. Her sixth novel, Picture Me Gone, will be published this September.

Big thanks to community member Sevigne Sevigne, who recommended Meg to me originally as a potential guest. I did invite Meg to be our guest, and she graciously agreed, and submitted an essay. But once I read it, I knew we’d want her for keeps. Happily, she agreed. I think you’ll agree, too, that it was the right decision to ask her to join our ranks.

Please help me welcome Meg, who will be speaking to us quite a lot about one of her passions: Voice.

Finding a Voice

Do you have a voice?  Can you recognize a voice when you hear one?  And while we’re on the subject, what does “having a voice” actually mean?

Poetry is a great place to look for a strong voice.  How about:

How to Kill a Living Thing

Neglect it

Criticise it to its face

Say how it kills the light

Traps all the rubbish

Bores you with its green

Continually

Harden your heart

Then

Cut it down close

To the root as possible

Forget it

For a week or a month

Return with an axe

Split it with one blow

Insert a stone

To keep the wound wide open

(Eibhlin Nic Eochaidh)

Do you hear a voice in those lines?  (Despite being unable to pronounce her name, Eibhlin Nic Eochaidh’s voice is so clear to me, I’m tempted to offer her a chair and a cup of tea.)

Many would-be writers spend far too much time nervously scrabbling about for a voice, but the word itself is horribly misleading.  “Voice” (unlike “power” for instance, or “presence”) suggests a superficial quality, one that can be manipulated by having singing lessons, or by changing the tone, volume or accent.

There is nothing superficial, however, about voice when used in the context of writing.  Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are.  The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.

So….what is the essence of your personality?  What is the clearest expression of your DNA combined with a lifetime of experience?  What does the combination of nature and nurture add up to?

In other words, who are you?  Who are you really?

If you don’t know, you need to find out.  Self-knowledge is essential not only to writing, but to doing almost anything really well.  It allows you to work through from a deep place – from the deep dark corners of your subconscious mind.  This connection of subconscious to conscious mind is what gives a writer’s voice resonance.

Read a great writer, listen to a great singer, watch a great footballer and you’ll feel the resonance – it’s the added dimension of power that can’t quite be explained by mere talent.  An ability with words is nice, but it’s not a voice.

Connecting with your subconscious mind is not easy.  It requires confronting difficult facts — about yourself and about the world.  Can you know who you are without understanding your own weaknesses?  And what frightens you?  Can you know who you are without understanding the evil, the selfishness, the cruelty of which you’re capable?  OK.  And the goodness, kindness, brilliance as well?

So maybe, just for a few days, stop thinking about how to get published, how to find an agent, how to write a perfect sentence, how to make your plot work….and think about who you are and what you have to say instead.  What makes you tick?  What do you love?  Who do you hate?  What makes you different from everyone else?

The more you understand yourself, the stronger and more individual your voice will be.  And here’s a little insider’s secret:  What all publishers are looking for is a strong voice.

All of them.

Really.

0

About Meg Rosoff

Meg Rosoff was born in Boston, educated at Harvard and worked in NYC for ten years before moving to England permanently in 1989. She wrote her first novel, How I Live Now, (released late 2013 as a feature film starring Saoirse Ronan), at age 46. Her books have won or been shortlisted for 19 international book prizes, including the Carnegie medal and the Michael J Printz award. Picture Me Gone, her sixth novel, was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Award . She lives in London with her husband and daughter.

Comments

  1. says

    Come on Mama Tee!

    You couldn’t find any Green Eggs and Ham thinkers. Nooooo, she had to find another contributor with deep provoking mojo. I need to grow another hemisphere.

    Welcome Meg!

    I’ll just buy another external hard drive and label it, the education of Meg Rosaff. The first folder will be called “2013-07 Voice”.

    Geez- there’s no way a website can hold all these mega cognitive writers

    0
    • says

      I’m feeling your pain, oh Brian. My favourite writer of all time is probably Dr Seuss (The Cat In The Hat? The anarchist’s handbook) but Dr S had a voice like no other, didn’t he?

      There’s a lot of mega-meta about these days. Sorry to hurt your brain, and by all means skip over the waffle if at all possible.

      0
  2. says

    I agree that finding your voice in fiction writing takes time and exploring in a creative sense. I wonder though, Meg, if voice is related to the subconscious mind as you suggest, do you think voice is sourced from the creative muse? And how do we explore that?

    0
    • says

      Wow. Don’t really know how to answer that, Paula. I’m not sure I believe in the Creative Muse — sounds much too mystical for me. I think the best way to think about Voice is that everyone should have one. A doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a parent, a musician, a writer, a mathematician. Voice is about YOU not about what you DO. The problem with writing is that if you haven’t got a strong voice, everyone can see it. But that great teacher you had? That wonderful concert you went to? The book that changed your life? Where there’s resonance, there’s a good clear strong voice.

      0
  3. says

    As a songwriter I was always trying to imitate someone else’s voice, but since turning to fiction and poetry, I don’t search for voice. I am my voice. Yes. I have a voice. It’s unique. It’s original. It’s me. To continue to ask the question and keep searching would only hinder that voice and create doubt within me as a writer.

    0
  4. says

    That poem really moved me. Voice is powerful indeed, much more so than craft. Thank you for sharing and offering a deeper perspective on voice than we usually hear.

    Looking forward to hearing more from you, Meg!

    0
  5. says

    Excellent post! I especially like this little tidbit: “Stop thinking about how to get published… and think about who you are and what you have to say instead.”
    Welcome to WU, Meg! :-)

    0
  6. says

    I agree with Brian: just… Wow. You’ve taken the subject to another level of potential understanding for me. I say ‘potential’ because I’m a bit slow to absorb–kind of like the competitor’s paper-towel in the ads. It may be messy getting there, but given the time and opportunity, I will find my way. (My writing journey in a nut-shell, er, towel roll.) Luckily I’m in a place where I can let in unspool and get messy.

    Welcome to WU, Meg! I can see now how lucky we are to have you.

    0
  7. says

    For better or worse, I have a voice that everyone who reviews my work finds distinctive (mostly in a good way, or so they tell me).

    What I’m struggling with now as I write a new MS: I got ambitious, wrote from three characters’ viewpoints. I worry their voices strike too much of a common thread.

    0
    • Sevigne says

      Curious to know what you mean when you say, your characters “strike too much of a common thread?”

      0
  8. says

    When you write as if someone is looking over your shoulder, your voice remains buried. I believe a strong voice comes from confidence … writing a lot … and writing for yourself.

    0
  9. Denise Willson says

    Welcome to WU, Meg!

    Hmm… I wonder if it’s really MY voice I’m looking to write, or my character’s voice. I have to believe there is a difference, or all my characters voices would sound the same. They’d all sound like me.

    Lots to think about… Wonderful.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

    0
    • says

      Meg, adding my ‘voice’ to the welcome.

      I’m replying with, not to, Denise because a similar question was rising in my mind. Granted, good writing can’t come from trying to be, or write, like someone else, or writing like you think the character ought to think. Or for that matter, creating a character solely with the idea that publishers will like her.

      When worth pursuing, my characters are drawn into the vortex of issues and currents that thrive in me and drive me, though they need not be in lockstep with my take (voice). Often they contest what they encounter with good reason, which makes it easier to love them, even in their nastiness or stupidity. Sometimes they expose my stupidity or the protagonist’s failings.

      But is your statement a writer’s body of work is expected to carry one voice over its time? Just wanting clarification. Thanks.

      0
      • says

        HI Tom
        I’ve written six novels, two in the voices of males, three third person, three first person, one with a 19 year old God as the protagonist. The same essential ‘Voice” backs up all of them but they all “sound” quite different as characters. Think of yourself as a puppet-maker — as a master puppet-maker you can make a giraffe and a princess — they’d be equally convincing, but wouldn’t look or sound the same.
        (Snatching at metaphors there….)
        xMeg

        0
  10. says

    All publishers are looking for a strong voice, all of them, really? So how in the world did the publishers who rejected “The Cuckoo’s Calling” miss JK Rowling’s voice? Not like she can easily disguise it.

    That said, great piece, only by going deep can a voice be found. Even if you write comic stuff like me, it’s got to come from down below.

    0
  11. says

    Mr Vanderwarker, I believe very few people who work in publishing believe JK Rowling’s voice was in fact, missed. The publisher was her own, for one thing, and the circumstances of the revelation appear to involve collusion with publisher and agent. Can’t say for sure, but there you go. And just because you have a good voice, doesn’t mean your writing is fool proof. You still have to have something to say, and you still have to write it well.

    0
    • Carmel says

      I have been disappointed a few times by authors whose writing is so beautiful, but then I didn’t care for the story. No wonder writing is hard — you need the whole package.

      0
  12. says

    I don’t know if she’s a soprano or a contralto, but Sevigne has been singing your praises for so long she must be hoarse. (You should hire her for PR if you haven’t already. I’m just sayin’.) I’m delighted to finally “meet’ you, Meg. Glad you’re part of WU.

    0
    • Sevigne says

      If I’ve been singing Meg’s praises it’s because (a) I was completely blown away by How I Live Now when I read it, and I’ve continued to love not only Meg’s writing (her *voice*) in her other books, but also that she doesn’t shy away from writing literary novels for teens. And (b) because she talks of voice like no other writer I’ve so far followed. I’ve had “disagreements” with other writers on the WU group over whether voice is more important than pretty much anything else you can learn as a writer. I usually end up sounding like an idiot in the wilderness, but Meg’s word–resonance–to me, is the essence of beauty goodness truth in the world…and what gives living in our often difficult world purpose. If we don’t express the heart and soul of who we are, what other reason is there to live? And as Meg said, that resonance shows up in every human being to dares to have the courage to be transparent.

      0
  13. says

    Great post on a very difficult subject, Meg. We don’t talk about it much because it’s hard to talk about something so intangible.
    My first playwriting teacher said, “And try to care about something important. Who you are will be all over your writing.”

    0
  14. says

    I shrieked with joy when I heard you would be joining the team, Meg. Welcome. A moment to gush? How I Live Now lives on my shelf of all-time faves. There’s nothing like the voice in that book. Nothing. Thank you for being a writer.

    And wonder of wonders, your post helps me understand something I’ve been grappling with (the topic of my August WU post, actually) . . . how being a writer has changed me. Or does it? Does “being a writer” alter something in us, or does it merely unleash the self that was always in there?

    What you say about voice helps me understand this . . . how finding my voice as a writer has helped me find/uncover/render/excavate me.

    Welcome, and thank you!

    0
    • says

      Thank you, Sarah. *blush* And yes, I believe being a writer changes us all. The more you excavate, the more you find, the more you think, the more your relationship to the world is altered, deepened.
      Since starting to write, I’ve learned to love being alone. Or to put it another way, you’re never alone with a dark, teeming subconscious….

      0
  15. says

    Wow–wonderful! Welcome Meg! Oh, did I (we) say wow! Away clouds, sunshine and clear skies have arrived. You may never know how much this post means to me, but suffice it to say you have tackled a topic many writers feel ‘tackled by’ for more hours and days than we would care to admit. Definitely looking forward to further posts from you!

    0
  16. says

    This is my favorite part–“Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are.”

    Truth is so evocative, that whether the content is viewed as good or bad, it always resonates.
    It’s so important, that when it’s missing, we instinctively note the void and feel compelled to search what is hidden.

    Great post, Meg! One we’ll ponder for a long while. :D

    0
  17. says

    This explanation of Voice resonated with me more than any I’ve read. Thank you. The view I always held was that Voice was what was left when the imitating and pretenses were stripped away. In other words, removing all but the honesty, honesty in the sense that what’s on the page is pure “you.”

    0
  18. Lisa Threadgill says

    Welcome Meg :) I’ve “heard” Sevigne talk about you a great deal and in such a way that gives me a pre-determined respect for you. The post just confirms that. I loved it.

    “In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”

    My favorite part. If those things aren’t heard, then they probably aren’t contained within the work and can render the work nearly meaningless.

    0
  19. says

    Welcome to WU, Meg, and what a great topic to start off with. Writing is always a process of self-discovery and with it, your voice. I think of voice literally. See, I stammer. And for years, when I couldn’t even spit out a sentence, I did not have a voice. I couldn’t speak. Writing unleashed my voice. Oh, I still sputter when highly emotional, but I usually dissolve into laughter, not tears anymore. Of course, you know that laughter and tears are twins.

    0
    • Sevigne says

      I didn’t know that about you…I guess by the time we met you had found your speaking voice. Your written voice is miraculous. xxxs

      0
  20. says

    Um, I love you. Because you wrote this:

    “In other words, who are you? Who are you really? If you don’t know, you need to find out.”

    I realized when I wrote the bio for my blog that I didn’t know who I was. It was in wrestling with that damn “About” page that I realized that’s why I write – to find out who I am. Since then, I’ve watched reactions to my posts with interest, and have realized that the pieces that are best received (most interaction with readers, most views, most sharing, etc.) are ones that practically write themselves – the ones that are in my truest voice. I feel like I’ve lost it lately, worrying about external soul-killing influences like “Will anyone like this? Where am I going with my writing anyway? Do I really have anything interesting to say?”

    I needed this today, to remind me to sit down, just the pen, and paper, and me, and write from the inside instead of the outside. Thank you.

    0
  21. says

    Well done, Meg. Voice is one of the most important and least understood aspects of the craft. Your insights are valuable. Welcome to WU!

    0
  22. says

    Even before I started writing, voice was something I always looked for in a book, as a reader. It makes or breaks my reading experience. So a huge thanks for a post on that topic.

    0
  23. says

    Meg-

    A big welcome!

    Picking up on the comments from Denise and Tom above, it seems to me that the fuzzy, imprecise term “voice” is on the page something we experience, for the most part, through a character.

    What Meg recommends here is wonderful and her questions are superb. The poem conveys a strong voice but, really, in a way, it’s a character’s voice. Or, alternately, imagine that this was a character in a novel speaking. It’s a voice almost Shakespearean in its power.

    To put it differently, Meg’s questions will lead you to your voice. The fictional art is to then give that voice to a character. (And different voices to others.)

    Looking forward to more, Meg.

    0
    • says

      Donald,

      Sorry to be thick skulled: I was right with you until you wrote “And different voices to others.”

      In your saying “The fictional art is to then give that voice to a character”, I take you to mean our voice that Meg’s questions reveal.

      Perhaps the term ‘voice’ suffers here from serving multiple duties. By “And different voices to others” do you mean have other characters speak in their own ways from our “deepest reflection of who we are?” I hope so, but if not, I’m really interested in the new horizon that opens.

      Thanks.

      0
      • says

        Whew, okay no body is here. Hey Tom, maybe you can think of it as freely expressing yourself within the craft. There comes a time when we master a thing and perform it with little thought or effort. It’s like walking. Most of us humans have been walking since we were babes. By the time we reach adulthood we have mastered the art of walking. Have you noticed how different people walk? Have you noticed how different novels with similar premise sound so very different? Adults don’t really think about walking. They just do it. When we first started walking we focused on it with everything we had. We didn’t try to walk to impress people or make money. We did it because we wanted to walk. The same thing with writing or anything we desire to master. She is telling us to truly express ourselves through writing. Sometimes we watch and learn a few things from others before we reach true self-expression, and that is okay. When we diligently practice with prudence the thing we want to master we lose ourselves in the repetitive ritual and then find ourselves years later after the practice has embedded itself into our subconscious.

        Now we have developed our writing “Voice.” If you are writing an essay you might have one voice (style, feel, expression), because it’s being told from one personification (Voice). The same might be true for most poems. When we look at fiction the whole story itself is one voice, because you wrote it, but it consists of many characters and maybe even a separate narrator, so they too must have the appearance of having a voice (again personification might be another way to look at it.), because we the readers want to believe, relate, and be a part of that fiction story. It’s like having a body with many parts. The whole body is one (the story), but it consists of many different individual parts (characters, the personified story tellers, POVs).

        So I would say yes (I know I’m not Don) each POV character has their own voice CREATED from the deepest reflection of who we are.

        0
        • says

          Brian,

          My characters and I thank you for helping and we look forward to learning from you and the rest of WU community.

          0
      • says

        Hey Tom,

        Voice is one issue of fiction craft. Another is character delineation. By that I mean making characters different from each other.

        Have you ever read a novel in which POV’s switch but they all sound the same? If so then you know what I’m talking about.

        When you create a “voice” for a character–that is, a unique expressive style and way of looking at things–that character comes alive. But do other characters in the story come alive in their own unique ways?

        I think confusion results because the term “voice” is so vague. It can mean narrative style, a character’s outlook on things, or an author’s aggregate view of the world as expressed through his or her entire body of work.

        If we look at “voice” as a term with multiple meanings, we might conclude the following: 1) Every POV character in a novel needs a unique “voice”, 2) Every author needs to bring a passion, purpose and focus to their fiction that, taken altogether, results in a ringing “voice”.

        To put it differently, novels are most effective when they reflect the author. Characters are most effective when they are utterly, uniquely and convincingly themselves, even though they and their “voices” are created by one author.

        Does that help?

        0
    • says

      Don, your comment actually put my question in a better perspective. Meg’s mention of the subconscious and all made me think of “how” the voice comes forward–perhaps through the creative muse, which I do believe in. So, you’re saying that the writer’s voice gives voice to the character? Gee, I sometimes get it the other way around, the character allows me to discover my voice. Do you think it works both ways?

      0
      • says

        Paula-

        Sounds like a chicken or the egg question! I vote for the chicken. Meaning, while characters may lead you…without you there are no characters. It’s all coming from inside you but, hey, conceptualize it however you want to, as long as it works.

        0
        • says

          And may I add that I’m so pleased that Meg kicked off this discussion. That’s exactly what WU posts should do. You got us all going, Meg!

          0
  24. says

    Welcome Meg,
    Heard you speak abut voice at the SCBWI NYC conference and have not forgotten it. I was so encouraged and inspired by you. One thing I loved was when you talked about the colander…probably won’t get this verbatim…but similar to what you said above… your DNA plus your life experience is what makes you who you are and hence your voice.

    “Think of your brain as a colander…the things that stick in your colander make you who you are…”

    And you added, “Be someone. Have something in your colander.”

    It reminds me of an amazing and inspiring speaker I heard one time, a woman who had been working in Africa and was stopped at a roadblock by guerrilla soldiers. As she spoke of her experience, I thought, gosh, I want to be able to speak with such truth and force. I said to myself, well, Mary…then you better go to Africa.

    “Go to Africa” is my shorthand, for you can’t write about life if you’re not alive.

    So happy you’re here, Meg!

    0
  25. Sevigne says

    Love this, Meg:

    “Go to Africa” is my shorthand, for you can’t write about life if you’re not alive.

    0
  26. says

    Welcome, Meg! After hearing Sevigne talk about you so often (and so warmly), it’s wonderful to read this and acknowledge just why she speaks about you so glowingly.

    I love everything you’ve written here. It’s like you’ve reached a hand through cyberspace and plucked on my heart-strings. Beautiful.

    0
  27. says

    Meg,
    Not only was this a superlative piece of the most critical aspect of writing, it literally hit me where I live. What you said about figuring out who you are as a writer, what scares you, it just cut through so much of the fog I’ve felt hovering over my writing lately. Being fearless as a writer is so important, but how many of us know how to be fearless when sharing what we have going on internally? I have always felt I was good at self-examnation, I just didn’t realize how much I was holding back when writing or crafting a character. I’m so glad you’re here, thank you for being today’s inspiration.

    :-)

    0
    • says

      Karyne, a beautifully crafted question about the heart, and the heart
      of the matter. The way I try to frame it is: without fear, there can be no fearlessness. So in that sense, fear is a gift. . . and we should use it.

      0
    • Sevigne says

      Karyne,

      To figure out who one is as a writer is to know who one is as a human being. Or to know who one is as a human being is to know oneself as a writer.

      My father, who pioneered post-Independence modern Indian art, once wrote: “I express myself freely in paint in order to exist.” Most people misinterpret that as meaning: he lived in order to paint. But that’s not what he meant. He was saying, he painted in order to find out who he was–the good, the bad, the ugly, the delicate, the gross and the sublime. Often he explored all of these in a single work. He also said, “Painting is an act of humility. Every painting I make is a either milestone or a tombstone.” (I think about this particular statement, often, when I write.) if you wanted to know who my father was; if you met his art, you met him. If you met him, you met his art.

      That’s what I believe Meg is saying when she writes: “In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”

      0
      • says

        I love your father’s writing — find it very inspiring and right at the bone of things. I think writing is SUCH an act of humility. And the worst of it is, it doesn’t get any easier. As John McPhee said, Your last book isn’t going to help you write your next one.

        0
        • says

          Meg,
          If we are what we write and we write who we are, then the world is full of secret murderers. LOL At least in the mystery genre anyway.

          ;-)

          0
      • says

        My mother was an artist and the moment she stopped doing her art, pieces of her began to disappear. I particularly like his “tombstone or milestone” assessment.

        0
  28. says

    Hey- hey, who said you guys were allowed to come back today and clarify things. People might get the right impression and think you care or something.

    See Mama Tee- this is exactly what I’m talking about.
    This is all your fault Meg!
    This was her first post and it’s 5MB.
    Should have bought a bigger flash drive.

    Thank you for clarifying D.M. (WooSaa)

    0

Trackbacks