Write Away

Voices by Susan LaVan for ArtvilleFinding your voice

by Christopher Meeks

Developing a voice in your writing is a notion that passes over me every now and then like the "thung" sound of an error message on my computer. "I should develop a voice," I think. "My voice is off today," I think. "Maybe I should work on that voice thing," I think.

To some people, the image of "voice" may be akin to a rotund person belting something out in Italian in front of a lot of penguin-suited people paying big bucks waiting for the crystal to shatter. It's not a bad image, though, because a solid voice in writing should indeed stimulate and shatter.

Or, if that metaphor's a bit too extreme, think of "voice" as simply like your own voice. Despite how many people there are, our voices are rarely so similar that someone would confuse you for someone else. That's just how a voice in writing is—it's clearly you.

A person talkingSince most of the information on the Web is text, you want your text to have a real voice, like your own. Not some "official" dry voice like one of those monotone announcements at the airport, but something that reads like a real person, something with some life in it.

I can recognize voice in other people's work. I simply have a difficult time seeing it in my own. [Editor's note: Chris actually sounds an awful lot like he writes, but just the way your own voice may sound strange when you hear it on a recording, sometimes writers don't hear their own voice in their own writing, which is where a good editor comes in :) Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.]

One of the great voices of the century is Ernest Hemingway. His voice, especially in parodies of his work, is quite recognizable. What made his work last so long, however, was his ability to hone and hone and hone his work until every word was the one he wanted—and the words carried power.

Is there a way to work on "voice"?

A person talkingOK, we aren't Hemingway...

We all want to change the way the next few generations speak, write, and think. The truth is, it's more important to learn how to write in your own distinctive voice than to try to write like someone else. Maybe your style isn't dramatic. Maybe it's soft-spoken. Or direct. Casual, or formal.

How do we do that? Here are some of my thoughts--in random order--on the subject:

  1. Most days I don't worry about voice. It's like worrying about whether you're tall enough or not. You may be too short for your pleasure, sure, but what can you do about it, aside from high heels? It's like analyzing your personality. If you're morose overall, are you going to start telling jokes? If everyone thinks of you as quiet, are you going to talk a lot until everyone forgets that quiet person you really are? If you write with honesty (see last month's column), you're likely to be spilling out a voice whether you know it or not. Write, and they will come.
  2. write like you talkWrite like you talk. It really can be that simple. Say something. Then write it. Use a tape recorder if you want. When you're done, read what you wrote, aloud. If it sounds stilted or wooden, stop for a moment. Think about what you're trying to say. Say it aloud. Then write it down.
  3. When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me. Let it be. Actually, the person who comes to me is my late friend, Robert Lee. As I mentioned in the previous column, he said the writer or artist "cannot know what he or she's doing. And the more people let themselves be bugged about 'Art,' the more trouble they make for themselves."

    In other words, let your passion and what you're trying to say guide you. Don't try to be who you're not. Lee added, "I think you must follow the urge, follow yourself, follow the child within you, do the Joe Campbell bit: 'Follow your bliss.' Follow the implantations from your senses. We're constantly having transplants of ideas. The big thing today is organ transplants, but we're also discovering renewed spiritual health through the transplantation of ideas. This is an even more spectacular advance because it's the way nations change. Think of the transition from feudalism to the Enlightenment. The key was there. The key was turned. The door opened. The artists entered."
  4. A person talkingWriting is entertainment. Another writer with a practical sense about him is novelist John Berendt (Midnight at the Garden of Good and Evil) who, in a list of 10 suggestions, includes this advice: "Think of writing, even the most serious writing, as a medium of entertainment. I mean entertainment in the broadest sense: engaging the reader's mind and keeping the reader interested. What good is a piece of writing, however brilliant, if nobody reads it all the way through? Always ask yourself, 'Are they still paying attention?'" In other words, if you concern yourself with the reader more than concerning yourself with you ("Let's talk about me") then you're subconsciously working on a good voice. This also suggests that "voice" can be tweaked. If you realize you're not funny enough or interesting enough, you can go back and rewrite. Rewrite. Writing is about rewriting.
  5. A person talkingEveryone sees the world through his or her own specialty. A novelist I know went on a blind date with an optometrist (built-in irony!), and she not only suggested new glasses for him, but after the movie they saw, she spoke about which actors had contacts or needed glasses. He spoke about the film in literary terms, of its "character arc" and "turning points." Their specialties made them see the film in different ways.

    When my wife and I were on our honeymoon in Denmark, we attended a Mid-Summer Night celebration (the first day of summer, the longest day for sunlight). As we were walking back from the big bonfire, still dusk at 10 p.m., I happened to be talking with a physicist, who was smiling about the fire and said how simple the universe was. Everything—my shirt, the moon, the fire we just witnessed—all could be reduced to the elements of the periodic chart. To him, the fire was all about atoms arranged a certain way. To me, the fire was about the drama of neighborhood people throwing a figure of a human onto a furnace fueled by wood. In other words, we each carry our voice with us.
  6. A person talking"Finding the right voice will help you write better than you ever thought yourself capable of writing." say author Ken MacRorie in Telling Writing. And how do you find that voice? "There is nothing so good as feeling to control actions… If you can find the feeling that belongs to a piece of writing you want to create, then the composing may be accomplished almost without your help, and it will be true in tone, and compelling."

    He's saying there's an instinct that takes control if you allow yourself to let your words flow. Remember,
    there is no bad first draft. Let yourself make mistakes—you can fix them later—but in letting yourself go, you'll also come up with material that surprises you.

    Let yourself go as in dancing. If you concentrate on every step when you dance, your rhythm will be artificial (if you have rhythm at all).

    Feel the music and move with it. Feel the rhythm of words, feel the poetry pull at you. Let out a haiku. Put in some alliteration. The sound is around you. Let go. Let it be. Type. Flow.

Boom. That's it.


About the author

chris-meeksChristopher Meeks writes for and teaches creative writing at CalArts , and he also teaches at Santa Monica College and UCLA Extension. He has published four nonfiction children's books and written many short stories. His stories have been published most recently in The Santa Barbara Review, The Southern California Anthology, Rosebud, and Writers' Forum. His plays--Fiveplay, Suburban Anger, and Who Lives?-- have been produced in Los Angeles.  Who Lives? earned several grants for its production, including one from The Pilgrim Project, a group that assists plays that "ask questions of real moral significance." For seven years, he was a theater reviewer for Daily Variety, and for two years he wrote a column for Writer's Digest. His screenplay, Henry's Room, won the Donald Davis Dramatic Writing Award.

Illustration by Susan LaVan for Artville

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