Friday, December 20, 2013

Your Writing Voice: How to Develop It, Recognize It, Not Copy Someone Else's

One of my long-time students asked a great question this week:  how does a writer develop voice?  Voice is the elusive uniqueness that comes out in writing over time, the signature of the individual wordsmith.  We would never mistake a passage by Flannery O'Connor with one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

What makes them different, distinctive? Each delightful in its own way?  That's voice.

The elusive hunt for voice is much discussed in writing books, classes, MFA programs.  One of
the gateways that maturing writers face.  Do I have a distinctive enough voice?  If not, the writing may never reach readers, inspire and entertain and change lives.  We may have a good plot idea, great characters, a good story.  But eventually, to make our mark, we need to write in a voice readers will remember.

But the Catch-22:  Voice only comes with maturity.  By cultivating it, letting it arise, putting in your time.  It can't be rushed, no more than any other growth and change that works from the inside out. 

You can foster voice, yes.  That's what this post is about:  the small steps you can take to recognize, individuate, and develop your writing voice.  But that magical quality of voice only comes as you put in your 10,000 hours.

I can answer my student with these suggestions.  Hope they bring him to an understanding of voice.  Hope they spur on the work it takes!

1.  Read up.   Like learning any skill, it's best to study those who are better than you.  Read up.  Read writers who have strong voice in their work.  One of my students was learning voice and asked where to begin reading.  I told him to start with the prize-winners:  Pulitzer, Man-Booker, Orange, and other prizes are often worth looking at.  He went to the Pulitzer website and began working his way through the list.  His writing voice improved dramatically within a year, just from immersing himself in those great voices.

2.  Model.  In art classes, we paint the masters.  We sit in front of their paintings--Rembrandt, Degas, Cezanne--and paint copies.  Traditional way of creating cellular memory, eye-hand coordination, painters have done it for centuries.  Writers are scared to do this--"What if I forget it's not mine and use it by mistake later?"  I never met a painter who worried about this.  Keep clean, and model carefully, and make sure your work is yours, and you'll be OK.

Modeling is a great technique for learning rhythm and voice.  Why is a certain word used, why a paragraph break just there?  Find a passage in a work you love and type it out (labeling it as the author's, not yours).  See what your hand and eye and brain learn. 

3.  Study structure.  Most writers hate structure, the antithesis of the free-flow creativity that's writing is supposed to be all about.  Do you really think the great writers don't pay attention to structure?  Voice and most writing skills are built on solid understanding of structure, how a piece is built from the ground up.  By the time it's published, it comes across to the reader as natural, free flowing.  But there are months or years of sweat and construction behind every piece of good writing. 

Some writers print out their pages and lay them on a table, squinting at them to notice the rhythm of text and white space.  Others read them aloud.  Others ask friends to read them aloud and the writer listens.  This teaches about voice, when it's present--clear uniqueness and surprise--and when it's not.

Voice is consciousness.  Not being asleep.  Whatever you can do to wake yourself up, is how you develop voice.  Structure is one of the first ways. 

4.  Put in your 10,000 hours.  In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously said that mastering a skill takes about 10,000 hours.  In our instant gratification world, we somehow believe voice should come naturally or not at all.  Have you put in your time?  Writing every day.  Studying the great writers.  Taking classes.  Exchanging work and learning how to give feedback so you can begin to see where your own writing needs it.  Learning basic grammar, sentence structure, even spelling.

I believe each of us has a unique writing voice, dormant inside.  It's been smothered and silenced by schooling and years of criticism and self-doubt.  Rare is the family and society and school that fosters uniqueness; most ask children and young adults and adult writers to conform and not stand out.  We're easier to deal with, that way.

But if you believe you have a voice, waiting to come forth, and you are willing to put in your time to uncover it and develop it, you'll win.  It takes work to coax it out of hiding and refine it for the page.