We often praise writing for its voice, but run into difficulty trying to define what voice actually means. We know that voice in a narrative refers to those parts that are not rendered in dialogue. After that, though, the term gets slippery.
Just as we each have an identifiable voice when we speak, there is something we call a writer’s voice that distinguishes his or her work. Faulkner sounds different from Hemingway. This personal voice is unique, like a fingerprint. It doesn’t just tell a story; it flavors it with a special seasoning, the strong sense of a particular sensibility behind the words.
How can you develop your own writing voice? Give yourself the freedom that’s the most important condition for creativity: freedom from doubt and fear. Fear and doubt are the great neutralizers of voice.
What might you be afraid of? What might cause the doubt? Here are some ideas to consider.
- All the rules you’ve had to learn about writing. Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction, don’t end a sentence with a preposition, don’t write in the first person—all that sort of thing. Years of graded book reports and 500-word themes have planted and nurtured the seeds of performance anxiety.
- The deification of great writers, which is furthered by literature instructors, who unbury all those hidden meanings and patterns and symbols and grand universal themes, then imply that all these wonderful effects were planned ahead of time and deliberately executed. What can you conclude but that you have to be a genius to write? If you don’t give up before you start, you may pore through the thesaurus looking for fancy substitutions for the ordinary words you would naturally use; you may pack your otherwise engaging narrative with a lot of philosophical abstractions.
- The unknown. When you begin work on a story, you don’t know where it’s going, or if you do know, you’re uncertain as to how it’s going to get there. What if it goes nowhere? What if it turns out to be a waste of time? Thus as you’re mustering the courage to make your way into virgin territory, voice gets stifled. This is a temporary condition, by the way, one that you can begin to dispel in subsequent drafts.
Reassure yourself daily: it takes fearlessness to be yourself in writing and to commit to your own work no matter where it takes you, no matter what the difficulties along the way.
In a future Muze Tap, I’ll reflect on voice as belonging not only to the individual author but also to the specific story being told.