We praise writing for its voice, but run into problems when we try to describe exactly what it is we?re responding to.
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?s fiction sounds different from Hemingway?s. A Mary Oliver poem bears no resemblance to one by John Ashbery. Their voices are unique, like fingerprints. They don?t just tell a story or convey a situation; they flavor them with a special seasoning, the strong sense of a particular sensibility behind the words.
Poet Robert Frost circled the concept of literary voice when he noted that ?sentences are not different enough to hold the attention unless they are dramatic.? And what makes them dramatic? ?The speaking tone of voice [is] somehow entangled in the words and fastened to the page for the ear of the imagination.?
Here?s a point worth making at the start: you don?t have to be an accomplished author to write with voice. In fact, doing so may be a matter of leaving voice entangled with your words instead of ?cleaning? it out. Look at these wonderful sentences from an untutored, unself-conscious writer!
I can play huhwayun music on my gettar. Its like when grandma took sick, she gave a scream, and when she gave that scream it was high, but it got lower and lower. Huhwayun music sounds something like when she was getting lower.
? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ??an anonymous third grader
But lacking child-like innocence, how do we coax out our own elusive voice and slide it onto the page. The first step is to coax yourself into that child?s freedom, the freedom from doubt and fear. That is the most important condition for creativity. Fear and doubt are the great neutralizers of voice.
In the coming-of-age novel?Cologne, author Sarah Pleydell slips back in time to enable the voice of her own girlhood: rambling, ?unplanned? sentences, diction echoing the adults around her.
Renate von Hasselman arrived in London in February, 1960. Caroline was eleven and Maggie was eight, and their mother was pregnant, though neither of them knew, which is maybe why it was so hard to understand what she needed an?au pair?for.
They?d employed a nannie, of course, when they were newborns, a retired nurse with a silver bun and a fob watch, who dispensed nappies and sterilized milk, whose job it was to usher discipline and routine into the household. Since then there?d been the char, Mrs Phelps, who made the carpets shine like a field of Frosted Flakes when she hoovered with the brand new upright?the girls thought it a shame to even walk on them, they?d rather tiptoe round the edge.
The radically different mystery novel,?Black Wings, by Navy veteran Kathleen Toomey Jabs (https://fuzepublishing.com/product/black-wings/), reflects the braced-up, polished voice of the author. Sentences are grammatical and disciplined, the images, distinctly accurate.
The white-hot, humid air is dense with fibers. It is Induction Day, the start of plebe summer. Bereft parents hover in the parking lots and wander the campus, while inside a makeshift dressing room in the old field house, Bridget struggles into a long-sleeved white jumper and long white pants and swallows the smell of starch and fear. A first-class midshipman, a?firstie, wears crisp summer whites, creases sharp as knives. He orders the squad to march and she moves forward. She is mid-ranks, surrounded by bodies. She has no idea of the destination.
When you sit down to write, what might be blocking the pathway of voice onto the page? What may be triggering doubt and fear? Here are some possibilities to consider.
1)?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 fragments, don?t say ?I?, be sure your spelling is correct?all that sort of thing. Years of graded book reports and 500-word themes have planted and nurtured the seeds of performance anxiety and streamlined a channel to self-consciousness and self-criticism.
2) The deification of great writers, which is furthered by literature instructors. You must have had one English teacher who unburied hidden meanings and patterns and symbols and grand universal themes in the books you read, then implied that all these wonderful effects were planned ahead of time and deliberately executed. What can you conclude, then, 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, voice-y words you would naturally use; you may pack your otherwise engaging narrative with a lot of philosophical abstractions.
3) The unknown. When you begin work on a story or poem, 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 just as you?re trying to muster the courage to make your way into virgin territory, doubt puts a hitch in your voice and fear stifles it. It is very important to realize that this is a temporary condition, one that you can begin to dispel in later drafts.
Contrary to popular opinion, revision doesn?t squelch voice; it enables voice to flourish. With each rewrite, you know the content of your work more intimately. Once you have a first draft, you can actually relax, take its existence for granted. You can fiddle around?see what happens if you try a different beginning, say, or shift pronoun or verb tense, or rearrange the clauses in a sentence. Settling back into an experimental frame of mind will allow the writing itself to speak to you. You will begin to hear its voice.
So think of voice-enabling this way: You telephone an acquaintance with some important information to convey, and you get an answering machine. When you first start speaking, your voice is stiff and unnatural, prone to awkward hesitations. But you don?t hang up. Because as you get into your subject, you find yourself warming to the one-sided conversation. Your natural voice takes over, animated and fluent. There?s also this: when you?re talking ?live? to a friend in a relaxed setting, chances are your voice is free from hindering doubt and fear the whole time.