Eventually, every writer must face the penultimate hurdle– finding your voice. Writing teachers and reviewers throw this phrase around, saying a writer has found his voice or has a strong voice. But beyond syntax and prose style, what does it mean? What exactly is your voice?
Your voice is nothing less than the mysterious essence of your individuality cast outward into the universe for all to hear. It is everything you really love and care about as well as what you despise and abhor. It is the sum total of all you have learned and experienced, every triumph, every humiliation, every moment of pure love or painful anguish. Your voice is precisely what you know about humanity. It is the light and shadow of you, the poetic nuance of your soul. Your voice is what you are deep down, past the civilized exterior and the artifice, not ego but something more rooted, your true self.
People are complicated. We build layers around our psyches to protect ourselves from the series of shocks called life. We become guarded and careful. To find your voice, you must face the nagging judge inside who discourages, chastises and belittles. You must find the courage to express yourself.
Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham with a fifty word vocabulary. Thomas Harris wove a complex psychological labyrinth over a series of novels; Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising. These two voices couldn’t be further apart, yet each voice is unique, clear and true.
Every time you sit down to write, the unspoken question is what do you believe? What exactly do you have to say about life, love, despair, betrayal, sorrow or victory? What have you observed about the world, people, their motivations and the ironies of fate? And most importantly, can you be honest?
In many ways, finding your voice is about carving away everything that is not you. As Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
Each of us is on a unique journey and we have stories to tell. Story is how society passes on knowledge. Whether in the form of mythology or a modern novel, story teaches us the depth and breadth of what it is to be human and the consequences of our choices. Story warns those who follow of the strange dangers encountered on the path. Every character you breathe life into is born from the crucible of your experience and will instruct, edify and delight your readers in exact proportion to your own wisdom.
Stories show us the qualities we need to defeat monsters and illustrate the ironies of life. The best stories make us recognize a truth about humanity, because that is what writing is, the study of humanity. Writing is an instrument of enlightenment. The stories we tell entertain the mind and resonate in the heart. Does a writer need to be complex or tricky or philosophically mind-blowing? No, but there is one thing you must be, even when writing fiction. Above all, a writer must be honest.
Asked how to go about this business of writing, Hemmingway once said, “write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” That is some of the best advice you’ll ever receive because readers sense dishonesty in writing. Anyone who’s ever thrown a book across the room knows in that moment, the contract was broken. The reader is a very astute bullshit detector. A writer can never predict what the audience wants, they can only tell the truth from their unique perspective and trust the right audience will find them.
As a writer, every tool and technique you’ve acquired is for one purpose, to express yourself with clarity. Never worry about whether or not someone else has written a vampire story or a detective novel or a space opera, because your story will be unique. Finding your voice is about saying what you believe and trusting the right audience to find you.
The other day, while cruising you tube to feed to hungry maw of Twitter, I came across a series of videos that documented an artist growing into his unique voice.
In the first pioneering video (1969), David Bowie is singing his song Space Oddity, a dramatic ballad that tells the story of an astronaut whose mission has gone horribly wrong. The performance is playful , but a slightly self-conscious, even awkward.
Two years latter, David Bowie performs Space Oddity in his alter ego Ziggy Stardust (1972). He has completely embraced his own unique voice. Any self-consciousness has evaporated. The spookiness and power of the song are fully expressed in David’s voice and the theatrical pacing.
Finding your voice is more of a process than a destination. David Bowie wrote a remarkable song. His performance evolved over time.
As a writer, you can study all the technique you want, master a prose style, create tight plots and character arcs, but none of it will matter if you have nothing to say about life. Your greatest tool as a writer is sincerity. Chip away at all the things that aren’t you, the pretense and the echoes. When you find yourself fascinated with a work of art, go deeper into your own experience and understand why you feel a kinship. Certain writers have beautiful styles. They learn little tricks and turns of phrase and their prose is smooth as butter, but style is not substance. A reader will come away feeling empty if what you write is false. Writing is about truth-telling artfully disguised as make-believe. Your tools are sincerity, individuality, authenticity, empathy and observation. Finding your voice as a writer means finding the courage to speak out and say what you believe. So be fearless. Let your voice grow strong and sharp and clear and become a lathe to shape the world.
Amy Eyrie worked as a journalist and editor in both the U.S. and Europe. She is currently writing a dystopian SciFi novel and a mystery novel with co-writer Alix Sloan for release in the fall.