But such thick wafts of mystical steam envelop the concept of voice, that it’s damn hard for a writer to find a useful definition, let alone a practical one. And I’m all for practical things, for applicable lessons and crispy clear viewpoints that ease my daily writing work, not complicate it. So I figured that one’s writing voice, like all other things, can be treated like a practical tool that you can chop out of a piece of wood and use as a zombie stake.
It’s not a mysterious process where you just press the hidden button at the back of your head and zzing! there’s your unique, unmistakable timbre. Sure, you can’t force it to materialize out of thin air, but it’s not a superpower either. There’s got to be a way to narrow it down, zero in on it and take it down.
I still study and experiment with it, read everything I can get my hands on and try things out that some writers wouldn’t touch with a quarantine suit, and I know my writing will go through many more changes before I can say ‘this is it’, but you know what? It’s fun, it’s a great ride, and though I don’t know where I’m going, I know fairly well where I’m not.
So let’s first clarify what voice is not.
Voice isn’t an affectation you aquire, it’s not the nasal tone you get from walking around with a pole up your ass, and it’s not a bunch of signature expressions you throw about repeatedly like dead bait. Your personal writing voice is your writer DNA, it’s in everything you write, it’s your legacy. Fortunately, you’re not a slave to your voice like you would be to a genepool. You can finetune and hone it, and marry it to a handsome stranger instead of your cousin’s cousin, so it can be a healthy, strong representation of your personality.
Beside time and writing, writing and then writing some more, I find there are some basic things that will prevent your voice from going astray.
1. Interest & Passion
Have you ever noticed how different your actual voice sounds when you have a boring conversation, compared to when you’re telling a friend about something awesome you’ve just discovered?
You might think this bit is redundant, but really, how many times have you been tempted to write about stuff you couldn’t care less about just because everyone else was writing about it? Don’t waste electricity and storage space on that stale crap, it makes environmentally challenged pandas very sad. Write about things that really interest you, that make you lie awake in bed and scratch your head. In your fiction, write about people and situations that make your heart race and your palms sweat, dig deeper and write about things that you just can’t not write about.
If you’re not passionate about the topic or story you write, why should I as a reader be? I’ve got my own work to do, errands to run and cats to feed (to aligators), I don’t have time to listen to someone mumble about something he could just as well have ignored.
2. Honesty & Courage
Express your feelings and your views openly, and be honest about your standpoint. Life’s too short and valuable to be spent pretending. Be genuine and true to yourself.
It takes courage, I know, especially when you’re worried about making a fool of yourself and becoming a troll magnet. But hey, a negative reaction to something true is way better than a pile of cheers for something you don’t believe in. You can always learn from the reactions you get on your honest opinions, even if all you get is a thicker skin, whereas reactions to some fabricated sham aren’t reactions to you at all, and therefore useless to your development.
Whether you write a blog, a novel, postmodern poetry or an existential horror screenplay, you’re making conversation with the readers. If you’re not writing from a place of honesty and openness, your writing will be nothing but a hollow echo and you won’t get anything valuable out of it.
3. Positivity & Energy
People who nag, complain and criticize all the time are awful company. Wenever we’re near someone that’s oozing negativity out of every pore like radioactive bile, infecting everything around, darkening the sky and cracking the ground open beneath their feet to let the fires of hell shine a spotlight on their drama, our instincts urge us to flee and get the hell out of there. We might get trapped in the snares of people who bemoan their fate for a while, but no one in his right mind likes to be around negativity longer than absolutely necessary.
Why we’re not allergic to our own wailing beats me, I guess mother nature fucked up on that one, but whenever you notice people starting to comfort you, you should check yourself. They’re most likely not going to be there to comfort you the third time in a row, or the seventeenth. If you have a genuine reason to be negative about something, flush it out of your system as fast and as efficiently as you can, and move on. But don’t listen to me, listen to my favorite philosopher who said “if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” You can’t argue with him, he’s got the mustache, he makes the rules.
This applies to writing fiction too. Cynicism seeps into your voice even when you’re writing stories, and though it might be interesting and enriching for a point-of-view character or two, if all your characters and even your narrative sound like a doomsday chorus or a group therapy session in a depression clinic, you ought to snap out of it.
While I’m not even close to truly knowing what I’m doing, I think I have a fairly well developed sense of what’s absolulte and utter hogwash, and what I should avoid at all costs. And I know one thing: your writing is yours alone, and your voice is nothing but the wonderful glow of your personality bundled into a powerful beam. Everything you direct it toward will shine in a new light that only you can give, and will carry a bit of you for all the eyes to see.
If you write about the things that really matter to you, and express your honest opinions and beliefs openly and energetically, your writing voice will distill out of your work naturally and represent your unique point of view as smoothly as it was always supposed to.
This blog post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2012