There’s a lot about writing that seems almost mystical – to people who don’t write, and even to those of us breathing in this damn, frustrating, lovely, mind-sucking, hole of death what we call writing.
One of the things you hear most often is VOICE. Big sparkly letters here, because that’s the onus us writing folk put on voice. It’s kind of like literary fiction – no one can tell you how to do it, but we sure the fuck know it when we see it. And then we get even more confusing about it – insisting that an author not only capture his or her own distinctive voice, but also capture each character’s voice. And the character’s voice has to be separate from the writer’s voice… and each character has to have their own voice so that you don’t have cardboard bullshit characters… oh, and don’t use any petty trickery or overused catch-phrases so that your reader literally rolls their eyes and tosses your book in a moldy laundry pile rather than finish it. We talk non-stop about craft and technique and grammar. We beat other works about the head and ears for feats of stupidity or, worse, purple prose.
Can you hear my voice? I bet you can. I can. I know it’s there and I know what it sounds like and guess what – it’s grammatically flawed as all hell. It doesn’t follow any of the rules. Okay, it follows some of the rules, but mostly by accident. You get to a point where you know them backwards and forwards and have to toss them out the window to get comfortable in your skin and say what you have to say. Because the bottom line in voice is communication. That’s it – plain and simple.
That’s all this really is – saying something. Saying something important, life changing, immortal, embarrassing, consuming, eloquent, clever, or blatant… I like blatant, myself. It often has a dry wit all its own. That’s all we’re trying to do here, whether it’s through articles or blog posts or works of fiction. We’re saying something – and in order to communicate, if you’re really good at it, you need to make sure your audience gets it. If your audience is full of high brow fancy schmancy types… go get a thesaurus so they don’t feel slighted by your mundane language – and leave your fucking profanity at the door. If your audience is full of deep thinkers, be more concerned with the ideas than the way they’re couched – deep thinkers don’t care what it looks like to the outside world. They’re not in it to impress anyone else. They want the essence of a story or idea that will make their mind take off… say it in pig latin, if it’s brilliant, they’ll still go with you.
But what you’re saying seems beside the point when you’re talking about voice, right? It’s part of it, but I’ll get back to that. Voice is most often categorized as the flavor of the way you say things, kind of like an accent on the page. And yeah, I can hear New York or Southern Charm, or an Irish Brogue. But it’s not just that.
Remember when you were in high school? Remember when you wanted all the cool kids to like you, or when you started digging combat boots and dyed your hair and spoke in Violent Femmes lyrics? Remember when you stole little phrases from rock stars or friends that were just too fucking cool? Remember that kid, teetering on the curb, trying to get his bearings and up his courage to walk in the middle of the road, pretty as you fucking please? That kid. The one who wanted to be someone special, but didn’t know quite how to get there so he borrowed bits from here and there and adapted other bits that might have been his or maybe they were scrapped up from somewhere else… and he wore them like a mantle of independent thinking – just like everybody else.
Yeah, well if your voice is that – you’re doing it wrong.
The problem with that kid is he was playing at being someone other people might admire. He wasn’t there yet. His confidence was low and his braggadocio was borrowed. That’s not where your voice comes from. You can’t borrow someone else’s… scratch that, you can, actually… if you’ve got a really good ear for language (and if you’re a writer, we’ll assume that you do), you can, in fact, mimic another writer… another person… adopt it and wear it and put it out there… but you won’t have developed YOUR voice.
And they’ll tell you that no one can help you find your voice. There are no instructions to get there or develop it or bring it out. Which is probably true – every journey seems to be as different as every writer. A writer friend recently told me that he could tell that I turned a corner. That my writing voice was the strongest he’d ever seen it. That I was ready. And I think I am. I am more confident in my writing and my voice than I ever was before. So how did I get there? I stopped giving a shit about any of the people who were not going to “get” me. That was it. That simple. I stopped tempering my language because people who don’t know me might mistake my profanity for ignorance. I stopped rethinking overlarge words that fit or mundane words that weren’t impressive enough, and I said what I had to say… and then I edited the hell out of it. (Anyone who tells you voice is natural and comes with no editing is a moron… writing is more editing than writing… when I find a writer who doesn’t follow that, I don’t want to read them.)
Oh, and what you have to say… remember? I said we’d get back to that. Voice and theme go hand in hand as far as I can tell. And some writers have more than one theme that they work with, some may not pay any attention to it at all… they’re just telling a story and don’t notice that their stories all have the same finite number of themes. YOU have something to say. You wouldn’t be writing if you didn’t have anything to say. There is something deeper to this profession than sheer love of words… and yeah, that’s part of it, but it’s not the whole. If I only loved the words, I’d be perfectly content to devour great works by other authors. But it’s not only that with us, we have something to say, and that something, whether deep or frivolous, something to move us or move mountains, something just to make us laugh, that’s as imperative to our voice as the way we turn a phrase. You just can’t have a voice with nothing to vocalize… it would just be a hum, or a moan, or a whimper.
So how did you find your voice? And what have you got to say? Figured out your themes yet?