Your voice already exists, right now, every time you sit down to write. It is inescapable—your voice is you. Voices can be obscured, even buried, under avalanches of helpful advice and nudges to be more literary or more commercial or less gritty or less sexual, but it cannot be entirely lost.
I was once hiking with a multi-national group, and one of the guys was an Australian who treasured his American accent imitation. When he finally let us hear it, the two Americans burst out laughing. We didn’t mean to be cruel, but he sounded like Tony Soprano—he’d absorbed his “authentic” accent from Mafia movies. The poor Aussie was crushed.
All too often, this is what happens to the emerging voice of a writer. The perfectly natural, perfectly beautiful accent of an Australian ends up sounding like New Jersey circa 1976.
How does it happen? How do you prevent it and allow your natural voice to emerge?
Of all the craft subjects in writerdom, voice is my favorite. I’ve been teaching it online and in workshops around the world for a long time, and it never, ever gets old. I teach it as a hands-on, down and dirty, gritty and joyful exploration of…YOU. Voice is the sum of all your parts—your passions and interests, the geography that most clearly resonates with you, the cadence of your ancestors and neighbors and your education, and the major events that have shaped your life-view. Your voice already exists, right now.
It becomes thinned and anemic when you listen too much to outside influences. Like critique partners. Editors. Contest judges. Your mother. Not that there is anything wrong with that input. We all need feedback. The trouble comes in getting lost in what everybody else says.
Your voice becomes more fully your own when you listen to your inner guidance, studying yourself as much as you study craft. (Notice I did not say: abandon all studies of craft and other writers and never listen to anybody else ever again. I said, study yourself, too.) The most authentic and beautiful gift each of us has to offer the world is our own peculiar, unique view of the universe.
When you get in line with that, that’s when you start to own what editors and agents call “a strong voice.” When you develop that particularity within your work, that’s when you don’t have to be afraid of going down the wrong track with your work—because you’re listening within as well as without. Listening to your voice will tell you what genre is right for you, what settings, what kinds of characters you should be writing.
For example, I’ll use a man who isn’t a writer, but could be—my father. He was a cop and then an insurance salesman. As a very young lad, he knew a lot of death and loss. He grew up entirely in Colorado Springs, the youngest of the family because the younger brother died. He has a dark view of the world, and a practical one. He knows terrible things happen and he does his best to protect himself and his loved ones from destruction. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy.
I’m sure you are shocked to learn he only reads mystery novels, and nothing flowery about them, either. If he were a writer, that’s what he would write.
You are as clearly defined as my father, as any writer out there who has tapped into his own voice by accident or intent. Most often, those writers who have tapped in powerfully, enough to start bidding wars and land gigantic advances, have done it because they are passionate about what they’re writing. Look at the writers you’d like to emulate and see if that isn’t true.
So how do you find your own authentic voice? It’s a big subject, but here are a few exercises to help: [Read more…]