Friday, August 12, 2022

How to Discover and Develop Your Own Writing Voice--Your Uniqueness Manifest on the Page

I've been writing and publishing for decades, and for just as long, I've been considering, thinking about, and searching for my own unique voice as a writer. I have my characters' voices nailed down--usually. Although that can take multiple drafts. But if someone were to ask me, What is your voice, how is it different from everyone else's? I have to really think about it.

Funny thing is: I teach writing classes on voice. I can recognize in other writers, no problem. But to define or describe my own? Challenging, most of the time.

Instructors--people who read my work and are not in my head--give me clues. One of my first MFA advisers said my voice was lyrical. I looked that up and it meant I used a lot of imagery and description. That made sense--I'm also a landscape painter so setting is primary and my visual sense is keen. Another instructor, a minimalist who didn't care for much description, tried to edit that out of me. I suffered--and I refused, eventually. Which told me that yes, this is one aspect of my writing voice.

I can often notice voice in other writers. Those I admire often have a strong writing voice. In other words, that elusive uniqueness that comes out in writing over time, the signature of the individual wordsmith, that keeps me from mistaking a passage by Flannery O'Connor with one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The elusive hunt for voice is much discussed in writing books, classes, MFA programs. It's one of
the gateway questions that maturing writers face because publication is more likely if you have a distinctive voice. Publishers often feel that voice is one of the elements that most easily reaches readers, inspiring and entertaining and changing lives. I remember working for a year or so with Christine Kane, the singer/songwriter turned business coach. I found her teaching style direct, compassionate, and no BS. Her book, The Soul-Sourced Entrepreneur, turned out to have that same voice. Congruence of self and writing.

This was Christine's first book, and usually writing voice only comes with maturity. But she'd been coaching for years and developed that signature way of stating her truths. Sometimes it's easiest to find your writing voice if you look carefully at your life--how you are, your values, your way of presenting your truth to the world off the page. That's why my lyricism made sense to me; I lived it in my writing and in my painting.

By cultivating whatever qualities you discover are core for you, letting them arise in your writing, and putting in your time to hone them, you grow your writing voice. It is a somewhat mysterious process, at least for me. It can't be rushed, no more than any other growth and change that works from the inside out.

Writers often ask me for steps, something concrete they can do to develop writing voice. I answer with these suggestions. They are as amorphous as the earlier step of studying your life for the qualities that mean the most to you--your core values.

1. Read up. Like learning any skill, it's best to study those who are better writers than you, who 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. It was rather astonishing to see such progress in such a tricky area, but he was determined and it worked.

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.

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