Sunday, June 20, 2010

Voice: Get Over It

“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.


Kelly Sauer said...

a very good post about voice.

this is why I never quite know what to do when someone says they like mine. it's just mine. I hear it all the time in my head.

I don't really work at it; I don't have time. I guess I'm glad people like to "listen" to it, though. ;-)

Maureen said...

Cameron's entreaty to "just move past" voice is important. No writer can develop what is not his own. Any one of us can try to write like an writer we admire but if we do so, we're just being imitators. A forced voice, an "unnatural" voice shows. Just write, write out of what's experienced, what's felt, listen to and be aware of the inner rhythms we each own and can speak to. The best writers do what comes naturally.

Kathleen Overby said...

You're so right, gotta have soul. Can't buy it or learn it. It is only to be had. :) I'm hearing Billy Joel........singing melody on this one. You're the base note and Julia is alto. :)

S. Etole said...

Whatever it is, you have a good one!

H. Gillham said...

I have to admit that I had been teaching high school English for over twenty years before I ran into a teacher, recently schooled in education classes -- her degree not in English but in education, who used that term "voice."

BTW: IMHO, Teachers trained in schools of education instead of their content area, in general, are weaker teachers than those who had academic majors with education minors.

She actually couldn't explain what voice was except that it was "style." I have to admit that she even confused her students with her explanations.

When I hear the term "voice," I kind of flip back to discussions I had with her in trying to distinguish it from style.

I actually think "voice" came about with the advent and eventually push for multicultural literature -- someone used that term to explain why, perhaps, a person writing with a different cultural, social, or religious background might be hard for a reader with another background to understand his or her perspective or "voice" since he/she may value something else?

I have to admit I felt like this was some kind of cheap word to explain "differences." It didn't make sense to me since I had read books like "The Count of Monte Cristo" and didn't need "voice" to get it.

Eh. I'm on a mini-rant.

I'm sure if you read what you wrote out loud, Glynn, then I would know your voice -- otherwise, I just recognize your style.


And, your style, btw, is a good one.

So, when I saw this title, "Voice, Get Over It," I was already over it. ...

Sorry, I didn't mean to ramble.

Voice used to push my teacher buttons just like "whole" language.


Unknown said...

I like you "voice" brother....


Unknown said...

Your words - "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." - and different is a wonderful thing. Each new, fresh perspective expands and enhances our life experience. Making the journey much more exciting. I have been enjoying your voice.

katdish said...

Voice. Yeah, never really gave it much thought before I started connecting with writers. I suppose if you don't have one, you're just imitating someone else's, and while imitation is the highest form of flattery, that never really works for me. Whatever your voice is, I'm a big fan.

Rebecca Ramsey said...

The trick for me at first was to block out all the little voices I heard in my head that weren't mine. Not that I was schizophrenic. :) When I read much loved books over and over and then tried to write, I'd hear myself mimicking the writer, as if I were picking up her accent. It was a problem for me, especially at the beginning, before I discovered what my own voice sounded like.

L.L. Barkat said...

Some of us, good at mimicking, will pick up other writers' voices unknowingly. I'm not sure that's all bad. Voice is probably more than just the sound of what we say.

(And I am marveling that you TOO are writing on voice and neither you, Laura, or I took the same track... mine to come at noon over at HCB. :)

Billy Coffey said...

I think voice comes with practice, the everyday sort of writing that all writers have to do. And I think L.L.'s right--you start out by subconsciously (or consciously) copying the voice of someone else. I also think the fact that you don't think about voice means you've found yours...

Cassandra Frear said...

This is a really good post. I can hear and feel your years of experience in it. They wrap around me with warmth. "It'll be okay," they say, "Just write."

And I move on, but strengthened, assured, affirmed. I don't need to work at being myself.

Laura said...

I love your voice, Glynn. It is very uniquely you! I am finding Cameron's advice on regular writing to be helpful in this.

Sandra Heska King said...

I really like your voice! It's real.