Picture yourself in a strange coffee haven, sans plasticine porters with looking glass ties. It’s San Diego in the mid-1990’s and, although smoking indoors has been banned for a little over a year, the lingering haze of ten thousand clove cigarettes gives everything the feel of a White Diamonds commercial. I’m at the counter ordering a round for my buddies when our high-maintenance friend arrives, out of breath and late, again.
“What do you want?” I mouth the words across the room so as not to disturb a reading of The Vagina Monologues.
“A caramel macchiato, 2% organic, extra-shot, extra-hot, extra-whip, with three Splendas and a dusting of dark chocolate,” he mouths back.
I shoot him an “okay” sign with my finger and thumb, turn to the Liz Taylor impersonator and say, “Make that five regular coffees.”
We’re there for our weekly game of Balderdash, a competition of intellect, creativity, and bullshittery –- the perfect distraction for the writerly sect. If you’ve never heard of it, in a nutshell, players pick a word, write their “definitions,” read them along with the correct answer, then vote on which is real. Points are awarded to those who choose the correct definition and to those whose definitions are chosen.
I open with this vignette because among that group was my best friend, Jeff, whom I could never fool. While the others fell prey to my pseudo-Websterisms time and again, every attempt at tricking him was not only dashed, it was balderdashed.
“How do you always know?” I asked one night after a particularly grueling tournament ended with the announcement they had run out of everything but decaf.
“Yours sound like you.”
“Huh? Whaddya mean they sound like me?” I mean, seriously. Pick a word –- any word -– balderdash, for example. Does this not sound like it was ripped straight from the pages of the OED?
Balderdash: (n) the dash with less hair than the other dash.
I rest my case.
Then again, maybe I rest Jeff’s case. “It’s the way you put things,” he continued, “the phrasing, the word choices, the style –- the everything. Sure, they may sound like dictionary entries, but dictionary entries you wrote — even when they’re the correct definitions — if that makes any sense.”
Personally, I think it’s because I typed them.
And that, my friends, was the day I discovered my words had a voice behind them, and that voice was distinguishably mine.
The Authorial Voice
We’ve been celebrating diversity on the pages of Writer Unboxed, and there’s nothing more unique to a writer than their authorial voice. But what is it, exactly, and how can you find yours? Is it the narrative voice? A character voice? The voices in my head? Yes, and no…and yes.
As a writer, you can create character voices which are vastly different than your own, however, in the undercurrent of words, your authorial voice still flows. It’s as much a part of you as the natural brown hair underneath the bottled blonde. It’s the way you sing in the shower when no one else is home: an attempt at Al Green that’s more Al Yankovic. As Jeff said, “It’s the way you put things.” It’s who you are. After all, doesn’t a Rowling by any other Gaibreath spell as sweet?
That being said, with practice, you can train your voice to be as loud or as soft and stylistic as you deem necessary, from blaring bullhorns to whispered sweet nothings, snarky wit to heart-tugging drama. But you — or rather, your voice — still echoes in the catacombs. A Hemingway is a Hemingway, no matter the piece.
For instance, I’m writing this article in “Full Mike,” so to speak –- as if I were sitting on the ratty couch in that California coffee shop shouting above the clamor of silverware and dishes, gurgling espresso machines, and tedious recitations of The Vagina Monologues. I tell myself I’m writing as such to emphasize voice, but frankly, I write most of my non-fiction in Full Mike.
In contrast, with my fiction, I hide in the shadows. I’m still there, the puppet master pulling the strings and running the show, however, I prefer not to be seen, or at least, to be seen less. Even so, everyone realizes it’s a Mike Swift production, mainly because I’m listed in the credits five times.
In other words, authorial voice is not only evident in the words I choose and “how I put things,” but also in the way I gesticulate on paper. I don’t act wild and crazy at a formal dinner, nor do I act prim and proper at a frat party. It all depends on whether or not there’s an open bar.
Finding Your Voice
My friends are more than people who call my bluff at Balderdash. Besides telling me my words “sound like me,” they’ve also compared my work to that of famous authors, and I’ve taken heed.
When compared to other writers, I read them immediately and study the similarities –- even Jane Austen –- yes, Jane Austen! Can you believe one of my stories reminded someone of her? Huh! Who’da thunk? I’ve even hand-written chapters of various works to get a feel for the pacing, determine the timing of conflict, gain smoother word flow, and experience the amount of dialogue needed before breaking into description, etc.
Through the exercise above, I discovered my weaknesses and worked out the kinks (somewhat) until they became strengths. After a while, I sounded less like the authors to whom I was compared and more like an improved version of me, with deeper understanding and better storytelling capabilities.
Home is Where Your Story Begins
Another way I found my voice was by reading through old journals, letters I wrote in college, and high school yearbooks.
Case in point: I received a Facebook friend request from a girl who, judging by our mutual friends, must have been someone from high school. That was a long time ago and I didn’t recognize her picture, so to the annual I went, hoping to see what she looked like without the crew cut. I couldn’t find her anywhere, and it seemed like we all wore flannel back then. But as I leafed through the pages, comments from schoolmates caught my attention:
- “You are a really insane person! I’ll never forget the crazy times.”
- “You’ve managed to make Physics one of the wildest classes I’ve ever had.” (Yes, Physics.)
- “The world will never be the same once you graduate.”
- “Whose yearbook is this? Swift’s? Oh. I got nothing.”
Once I thought about it, I realized those are essentially critiques of my personality…my essence…my voice. And decades later, I haven’t changed a bit. Okay, so maybe I’ve mellowed some, but that comes with age and experience. The same can be said about my writing.
Be Fearless and Soar
It wasn’t easy finding a balance between over-the-top and mellow yellow. As witnessed above, when I was younger, I really pushed the envelope with my antics. Through trial and error –- mostly error –- I learned what worked and what didn’t, what soared and what fell flat. More often than not, I put my foot in my mouth, and sometimes, when things got crazy, in your mouth. However, for the most part, people liked what I had to say and how I said it. I only had to trust my instincts, fearlessly. I had to take a leap of faith. Ha!
Transcribing my voice to paper was no easy task. I joined flash fiction and critique groups, and took part in weekly writing prompts for almost two years. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and accepted all feedback with an open mind. And I found Writer Unboxed somewhere along the way.
Today, I surround myself with people I trust, people I admire, people who are kind, yet honest, with no problem telling me, through smiles on their faces, “This sucks.” Of course, they proceed to tell me exactly how it sucks, which is the real joy in our friendships. I prefer hearing what’s wrong with my story than what’s right.
Stay out of the Corner
In closing, I want to tell you the story of Jennifer “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” Grey. You remember her – the cute, quirky ingénue with the misshapen nose in Dirty Dancing. America’s sweetheart. And then, for whatever reason, she got a nose job. She took her quirky uniqueness and chopped it off to be like all the other Hollywood starlets. She put her own self in the corner, and I haven’t seen her since, except for a recent appearance on Dancing With the Stars. She did the tango.
My earnest hope is that, if you take nothing else from this article, you learn to be fearless and trust in your uniqueness. There is only one you. Be brazen. Don’t let anyone, especially you, put your Baby in the corner.
How about you? In what ways have you discovered your voice? How do you “hear” yourself? How do others hear you?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!