There are several subjects within the huge realm of writing that I’m obsessed with:
- Structure – how to arrange your thoughts and ideas in a way that makes sense to the reader, creates meaning, and helps you get stuff done;
- Showing Your Mistakes – challenging yourself and going deep enough to leave a string of not-quite-right words or ideas to help you get to the good enough one; and
- Voice – how do you as a writer communicate the subject matter, the word choice, the syntax, and the underlying mysterious certain something that says, “That’s my voice!”
Today I want to share some thoughts on voice and how developing it has helped me and many of my students become better, more courageous, and more prolific writers.
One caveat – you can be successful without a voice. There are plenty of writers who write in the voice of a client or a publication. Tech writing, copywriting, some forms of genre fiction are, by necessity, voiceless. So there’s that.
But what if you want to write something that can ONLY come from you? Personal essays, novels, memoir, graphic novels, poetry, blog posts, and website copy to attract your just-right clients? Then you must wrestle with the question of voice.
The aha’s don’t always come as quickly as we’d like so we may avoid the idea altogether. We try to get away with leaving our voice unclaimed. That can lead to a brick wall of stuck. Or shallow. Or bored.
Here’s what Pascale, a coach, spiritual teacher, and writing student of mine, said about when she avoided the work of claiming her voice:
“When I’m afraid of the material or I haven’t processed it enough to be writing about it, I skip to a tidily wrapped lesson without evoking anything meaningful for myself and the reader. Once I realized what this pattern was, but before I knew how to fix it, it became very hard to write at all.”
This is where too many writers get stuck! You know there’s something wilder, truer, and more you but how do you get to it?
You need instruction!
But part of what makes learning to write tricky is that you may believe you should be able to sit down and write just the way you – or a character – speaks, and when that doesn’t come easily, which it usually doesn’t, you give up.
Paula, another student and friend of mine, said this about how she keeps moving forward when it doesn’t come easily,
“I’m supported by other writers practicing with their own voices. The deeper I go and the more seriously I take my practice and what I am creating, the more I can trust my own voice to say what I really need to say.”
Practice. Commitment. Community. Mentors. Writers you admire.
Going from bland to shazam (couldn’t resist – there’s my voice!) in your writing requires a sort of team. A commitment. And a willingness to work hard to work your edge and find what makes your writing distinctly yours. It requires paying attention to what you love and hate. What you must understand. What you must help change.
When I asked photographer, dojo owner, and writer Sonya what the process of finding her voice had brought, she said…
“You get to be totally prepared for when a ‘what’ comes along. It’s like being in a river – when you find your voice, you get to go with the flow. If you haven’t found your voice, it’s like constantly trying to swim upstream.”
She also said…
“I didn’t realize that I was afraid and being untruthful in my writing. Bam! Epiphany! I stopped trying to write to someone else’s voice and looked at my own. Truth. Fear. Wow. It was almost like role playing. If this person sitting here wasn’t afraid and wanted to tell the truth, what would she write about?”
Voice springs first from telling ourselves the truth. It doesn’t mean we have to share that truth (or all of it), but we do have to face it and understand it – at least to a small degree – to be able to write about it. Your voice won’t develop when you hide from yourself.
You also can’t claim your voice if you always edit as you write. One of the students at my writing retreat, Erin, said this about her writing…
“My writing process hinged on editing. I wanted to say things perfectly, compulsively. For me, the real fun existed in editing so my original creative process mostly consisted of a flash of inspiration and then the editing of that flash of inspiration repeatedly and compulsively until I was bored and it was boring. The hard work (for me) is to write through the bad and generate material when you aren’t inspired (which, for me, is most of the time).”
Voice comes from rooting around in the mess and chaos, not from making your thoughts pretty. It emerges from the compost not the tidy rows of ready to pick veggies.
Voice also develops from knowing your weaknesses. Sonya said…
“An illness left me with some very distinct cognitive challenges. I now have dyslexic tendencies and problems with word and fact retrieval where I did not before. Incorporating my new voice has meant working around these challenges. What does my voice look like now? This was another big light bulb moment for me. Understanding that there were different ways to write. Finding a way to work with what I have and who I am has given me new pathways. Whenever you need to really think about your process, and change it somehow, you have to examine the intricacies that make you what and who you are. This constant self evaluation has become a key component of my writing process.”
Investigating, claiming, and sharing our voice isn’t easy, which is why it’s so valuable a skill to have. “I still feel resistance and fear when broaching the topics that require me to go deep,” Pascale told me. “But I know the writing is better, it affects people more deeply, and it heals me every time. It has required more of me than I would have ever imagined, especially for someone for whom writing comes pretty easily. I feel good about this process and also consistently scared shitless.”
Me, too. Scared and frustrated and then exhilarated when I hit upon a sentence, an idea, that’s mine. That’s why we keep returning to the page again and again. Because, well, what choice do we have? If the answer for you, like me, is “Not much,” then I gently suggest you face what’s calling you and answer: in your own voice.
So much love,
P.S. My obsession with voice has taken the form of my first ever self-guided writing retreat. Read all about it here. It might just be the support, the love, the insights, and the instruction you need to own your magnificent voice. I really love this retreat!