Voice is an interesting aspect to writing – at least I find it so. I think of it in two ways. First, there is the writer’s voice. The often difficult-to pin-down ‘something’ which means when we pick up a book we know it is by a particular author (and not only because that author’s name is on the front cover). Secondly, there are the various (and hopefully variable) voices the writer might choose to take on to create, for instance, a character or a tone for a poem.
It might be easier to compare it to actors. There are actors who have a very strong and defined presence – perhaps Michael Cain is an example – and this comes through in any part they play. Then there are actors who appear to morph into different roles. I remember seeing Daniel Day Lewis in three films in a single year – one being My Left Foot – and I would not have been able to say it was the same actor playing the main protagonist in each, his portrayals were so varied. The writer’s voice is part Michael Cain and part Daniel Day Lewis.
So let’s initially look at the Michael Cain aspect of a writer’s voice. I believe it might take a time for a writer to hit upon their voice and this voice – much as with our natural voice – may change over our writing life. I think mine has become more confident, perhaps more measured, less anxious about its nature – which is (I have gathered from feedback) fairly slow, poetic, discursive.
How to nourish this part of the writer’s voice? Write, lots, as freely as you can, bringing you to what you actually want to write, and not what you feel you ought to write. I follow the methods of Julia Cameron (morning pages – thought I rarely do them in the morning – in her book The Artist’s Way) and Nathalie Goldberg (in her book Writing Down the Bones).
The aim of free writing, says Nathalie Goldberg, is to ‘burn through to first thoughts … to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel’, to ‘explore the rugged edge of thought.’ This does take practice and may initially go against our writing instinct.
One thing which certainly squashes the Michael Cain part of our writer’s voice, is criticism (or fear of it) too early in the process, too often and when it is overly or overwhelmingly negative.
Then there is the Daniel Day Lewis aspect. Where does this come from? It comes from listening. Listening to other people: to their use of language, to the cadence of their voice. And from watching, observing their body language. We can also research voices: through interviewing people, through oral history projects and archives. I recently went to the wonderful national centre for the written word in South Shields (http://theworduk.org/visit-us/) where they are collecting examples of dialect both written and spoken. What a great resource.
We do not want all our characters, or poems, to have our voice, so, as writers, we must develop attentive listening skills. Then, once we have done our writing, we must read it out and listen again, to ensure we have captured what we hoped to. I have found the recording function on my computer useful for this, so I can read out and then listen back to my writing.
Writing exercise: take yourself to a local café on your own and choose a corner table. Have a listen. Have a go at reproducing the voices you hear around you in your writing. Or interview someone who has a very different upbringing/background to yourself. Choose parts to transcribe. Notice the use of language. How would you describe the unique cadences in your writing?
What are your thoughts on your writer’s voice?
Great advice! Most writers love to eavesdrop but how many of us capture what we hear?
I’m afraid I’m an incorrigible eavesdropper and I do take notes!
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I think voice is one of the most difficult aspects of the writer’s toolkit to define, and difficult to see for oneself how it’s developing. I like your analogy with actors who have both a voice we instinctively recognise as theirs but which nevertheless varies between the different characters they might portray. Great post.
Thanks Anne. When I was given the criticism early on in my career that all my characters sound like me I decided I had to explore voice more!
I facilitate a local writing for well being group and I regularly talk about the abundance of writing material we can all get from just using our five senses, particularly our ears.
Thanks Mary. Good luck with your work.