some less-than-definitive thoughts on developing ‘voice’

listening to: Frank Sinatra

The always-interesting Ben Casnocha, author of My Start-Up Life has also blogged about David Allen’s concept of collecting thoughts (see previous post). Ben himself uses the term “fringe thoughts”, which I really like. Interesting stuff happens out on the fringes; it’s important to pay attention.

I like Ben’s recent post about voice, wherein he asks “Is writing advice around ‘voice’ like career advice around ‘passion’?”

Ben writes:

In this informative Q&A with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux president Jonathan Galassi, he says:

“All of these [great] books are different in terms of their angles of attack, but they’re all very strong voices. And they don’t sound like anyone else. I think the voice is the most important thing—and then the shape. … Voice is one way of looking at it but aliveness is another way. And I think voice is kind of being killed in a lot of writing today.”

As with careers and passion, I don’t disagree with the fundamental point here, but I do worry about the intensity with which this advice is dispensed to aspiring writers. How, exactly, are you supposed to improve the “voice” of your writing? How do you know whether the sound of the words on the page are most true to you? What is “aliveness” and can not writing have bounce in its step but still lack a singular voice that would be familiar if you heard it again? How does “find your voice” square with advice to “imitate the best”? How, exactly, are you supposed to synthesize the best of other writers you are imitating — and how do you know whether your synthesis is your own voice finally or just a pale collection of imitative gimmicks, smashed together?

Perhaps all this self-consciousness about “voice” is a good thing, but perhaps, as the questions above illustrate, it’s needlessly inducing stress, and distracting from other, better focus points of writers (namely doing the thing — actually writing and putting faith in the process of constant revision*).

Probably the reason why this advice is so often given to aspiring writers is because editors themselves are so often talking about it; I remember one editor enthusing about my manuscript BLOODANGEL to my agent in an email “…she has a great voice…”

‘Voice’ seems to be that writerly equivalent of ‘star power’ or ‘the X factor’ or ‘animal magnetism’; you can kind of explain and analyze it, except you can’t because something about it is elusive, ‘magical’, except you know it when you see it (or read it). I also think editors want to drive home the point that storytelling isn’t just about plot, or the right choice of detail, or a properly sympathetic character. Storytelling is about writing the way dance is about movement and painting is about color, materials and brushstrokes. Which seems like it would be so obvious you shouldn’t have to say it. Right?

So maybe: ‘voice’ is technique when you’ve transcended technique, so that you don’t see a dancer working through her choreography, you see a dancer expressing and interpreting that choreography. She’s learned it so well she doesn’t even have to think about it. She just dances, and her style and personality shine through.

If you read a lot — and most aspiring writers don’t read enough — and write a lot, you can’t help but find your voice, and you can do it without even thinking about it. Ultimately voice is also your personality, your mind, filtered through all the influences banging around your head until the whole mess synthesizes into something that is, for better or worse, your ‘voice’….except then again, your natural ‘voice’ plays a role in choosing your ‘influences’ as much as vice-versa. (For example: my mind and personality are such that I like the play of language, I like poetry, I tend to think in semi-colons, and I’m a fast talker, so it makes sense that I would gravitate to writers like Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood or TC Boyle as my ‘influences’ rather than the minimalist style of someone like Carver. In other words, you can learn a lot about your voice, and what your voice wants to be, through who and what you find yourself reading in the first place.)

Voice isn’t taught, it’s cultivated. If you feed and water it, and then leave it alone, it will grow on its own, and bloom in the darkness.

Or something.


*And yes, this is the first time I’m referencing a post that turns out to be referencing me. The hunter is the hunted, the analyst is analyzed, the reader is also the read…


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