“A writing voice is not a collection of ticks and tricks,” says Julia Cameron in The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. “A writing voice is a vehicle for communication. The individuality of a voice emerges not by falling in love with your own facility but by learning to move past it. Too much cleverness gets in the way of real writing and real thought.”
There it is. Voice.
And some good advice to get over it.
“Voice” has become something of a holy grail for writers, much like “platform” has become a holy grail for publishers. Writers have to have a distinct voice, an individual voice and (above all else) a marketable voice. And we don’t really know how to define it. Is it style? Is it verve? Is it like Hemingway or Steinbeck or Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor? The answer is yes, but that’s not very helpful. And while we can’t really define it, we “know it when we see it.”
When it comes to my own writing, I don’t pay attention to voice. Perhaps I should. But I don’t. I’ve never paid much attention to voice. I’ve heard about it, of course, and a lot. I’ve been told about it. People have even told me what mine is.
In college, all history courses required to use “blue books,” light blue paper booklets for writing answers to essay questions. My first essay test in U.S. history came back from the grader with this note: “Nice essay.” I remember my exact reaction. I didn’t immediately analyze what it was that had prompted her remark. No, I thought something far more mundane. “She’s so relieved that there’s an occasional essay that’s legible and coherent that she’ll say nice things and go easy with the grade.” OK, so I was a bit mercenary (look, I was a college student who needed to pass this required course).
My first Introduction to News Reporting assignment came back with “not bad for a cub” scrawled across the top. That was the first and only time this particular teacher made a comment like that on one of my assignments. No explanation; the grade, if I recall, was a B+. But I was thrilled that he liked it – he was one tough grader and would drive 70 percent of the class to drop the course before mid-term.
The next (and one of the last) comments like this I can recall happened in 1983. I had been in a new job at work for several months when my boss unexpectedly said one day, “I like your writing style.” And then he went on to describe it. I was surprised and – naturally – flattered. But I hadn’t really thought it before then. And I didn’t think much about it after that. I nodded and went on.
I don’t think voice is something that can be taught or learned. It’s something you’re born with, and something that’s shaped by your life experiences. That means that, for each of us, it’s different. We can teach and study the mechanics of writing, but no one can teach “voice.”
For writers, that’s like someone trying to teach us “soul.” Voice, like soul, belongs to each of us, and for each of us, it’s different. Julia Cameron’s right: just move past it.
Over at The High Calling Blogs, Laura Boggess has been leading Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write. Last week, the discussion was about making it, honesty and vulnerability. This week’s discussion is about dailiness, voice and form versus formula.
Stuck by Nancy Kourmoulis.
An Accidental Post While Watering the Garden by L.L. Barkat.
Cassandra Frear's Dailiness.
Finding Your Writing Voice on Twitter by L.L. Barkat for The High Calling Blogs.