Where’s Your Voice?

It’s not always so easy finding your voice. Sometimes you have it, but no one else can hear it. Other times, you don’t in fact have it, though you think you do. Those can be the most frustrating times of all–you’re looking around at everyone like, “Hey, come on guys! Can’t you hear me?”

And then, you can have it and lose it. That may feel really bad and scary, but at least you had it once, and trust you can probably get it back.

What’s hard is when you know you need a voice, but you don’t know how to develop one.

What is voice, anyway? It’s something that is illusive and yet distinctive. It fits the themes that are percolating in your work. Some writers use one voice, while others use many. Voice can be rough, it can be smooth, it can be high or low, but it must appear at all times to be natural and unforced. Of course, we all know it’s far from natural and unforced–in fact, we labor over it endlessly–but voice must be almost unnoticeable to the reader (notice the “almost”).

What is highly noticeable is lack of voice (= boring writing) or a voice that is mismatched (= confusing writing). Sometimes we may just not like the voice we encounter, but that’s okay. If one person hates it, that almost guarantees that another person LOVES it. As writers, we have to remember that it is not our job to try to please everyone. That is a death sentence.

Here are some examples of VOICE:

1. “As strong as she was physically, most of the power was in her eyes, small and blue, and when she squinted, and she would squint with a murderous intensity that meant, unmistakeably, that, if pushed, she would deliver on her stare’s implied threat, that to protect what she cared about, she would not stop, that she would run right over you.” Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (novel about a young man who brings up his brother after both their parents die of cancer).

2. “I pictured the street ballet of the deaf and dumb: agents signaling to each other from corner to corner, stroking noses, tummies, backs and hair, tying and untying shoelaces, lifting their hats to strangers and rifling through papers–a choreography for very nasty scouts.” Anna Funder, Stasiland (nonfiction account of the trauma suffered by East Germans under Communist rule).

3. “To Irina’s mind, it was the most underrated of symphonnies: the jingle of the ring, the hard rasp, the clop of the bolt withdrawing, open-Sesame. The soft brush of wood against carpet. Engrossed in her reading, she had turned down Shawn Colvin, the better to keep her ear cocked. ” Lionel Shriver, The Post Birthday World (novel that hinges on one woman’s choice during a moment of temptation).

4. “Truth be told, we’re the only ones responsible for our own happiness. Think about how you spend your time compared to how you would like to spend your time. Work, kids, teachers, home, groceries, laundry, family, friends, commutes, doctors–you name the activity and you’re probably doing it. Can you identify what’s holding you back from fitting into your life those moments that actually fill you up?” Susan Callahan, Anne Nolen and Katrin Schumann, Mothers Need Time Outs, Too (nonfiction that looks at the reality of mothers’ lives by going to the experts themselves: moms).

5. “They never told me what it was, and they never told me why they might need someone like me. I probably wouldn’t have taken the fucking job if they had, to tell you the truth. And if I’d been clever, I would have asked them on the first day, because looking back on it now, I had a few clues to be going on with: we were all sat around in this staff-room-type place, being given all the do’s and dont’s, and it never occured to me that I was just about the only male under sixty they’d hired.” Nick Hornby, Nipple Jesus (short story about a burly security guard who falls crazy-in-love with art).

Here’s the thing: voice can be crafted. It’s not simply something you find lying around and put to use, it’s something you mold over time. In my last class at Grub Street we looked at writing by Heather ArmstrongJames FreyDavid BrooksHolly LeCrawMichael CunninghamMary Karr; the writers who wrote the examples above; and many others. The students embraced this wide range of readings enthusiastically, not because the varying voices always hit the mark but because of what they learned about how deeply and comprehensively voice influences story.

Experimenting with voice is immensely liberating and fruitful. Start your own journey toward crafting your voice or join us. I promise that if you loosen up and try to reach those new and challenging notes you’ll soon be singing loudly and joyfully.

May the Force be with you,