Every Day is Saturday

Finding Joy in the Here and Now

Finding My Voice

on April 8, 2014

GACS Chorus 1985

A few weeks ago a guy in my writer’s group told me my novel was coming along well – the story was flowing smoothly, the characters were developing nicely – and he thought I should interject more of my “voice” into the writing. I was so pleased and flattered by his comments; it’s the kind of feedback any aspiring writer wants to hear. I also agreed with him. I’ve been feeling the novel is going well (as far as it has gone anyway, which really isn’t that far), and I shouldn’t be afraid to interject more “me” into it. However, having embraced the idea of putting more of my voice into my writing, I’ve been struggling ever since about not only how to do it, but also with figuring out what my “voice” sounds like.

Which struggle, if you know me, sounds crazy.

Am I wrong about that?  I mean, I’ve always been the kind of person who is pretty clear about who she is and what she thinks, right? My personality isn’t some great big mystery, is it? I hardly go around hiding who I am. I may try to soften the impact because I’m afraid of steamrolling people I don’t know, but that’s a losing battle – my “voice” is a loud one, no matter what I try to do to tone it down.

So why am I having so much trouble finding my voice in my writing?

Part of me thinks that my voice is already there – I mean, it’s my writing, isn’t it? My perspective, my sense of humor, my wants and desires, hopes and dreams – it’s all in there. This blog has also helped me to find my voice. It’s about being authentic, and truthful. So what’s the secret sauce that’s missing in the novel?

In an attempt to discover the answer, I decided to read other people’s writing to see if I could discover what gives them their distinctive voices. I’ve been working through Earnest Hemingway’s short stories, I picked up Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, and Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane and American Gods. I’m not sure I’m any closer to an answer than I was when I started, but at least I’ve been entertained.

Hemingway isn’t without poetry, he’s just concise. Every word he uses is on purpose, direct, meaningful. Maupin is charming, and owes his success to his deft handling of his characters – they jump off the page and immediately offer you a coffee, a cocktail, or a joint, depending on who they are. Gaiman has an amazing ability to take you into alternate realities – realities that could be just under your nose – in a way that you willingly hop on his carousel without a backwards glance. I am now sufficiently familiar with these writers that I could probably identify their writing from a paragraph or two – a literary line-up.

Is that what a writer’s voice is? That thing (whatever it is) that makes them immediately recognizable to their readers? Do I have that? I don’t know. I suppose I’m not in a position to judge – that would be up to the people who read my work.

As much as the idea of finding my voice intrigues me, I am also wary of the trap I could fall into so easily. A trap that says I have to put on a persona to make my writing interesting. It is true that I often feel as if the regular me and the writer me are two different people, which is apparently quite common. Margaret Atwood, in her wonderfully insightful book “Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing” says this:

“What is the relationship between the two entities we lump under one name, that of “the writer”? The particular writer. By two, I mean the person who exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.”

The trap is the belief that the “writer” in me is someone entirely different from myself, like a character I made up instead of the person I become automatically when I sit down to write. The writer in me is a different version of me – more thoughtful, more particular, more willing to entertain wild ideas – but it’s still me.

Here’s another thought. Of course every artist goes through the process of finding their “voice”, but I’ve recently had the epiphany that even singers must go through it as well. I used to think that the singers you hear on the radio just sang the way they did effortlessly; they obviously work with vocal coaches and are generally more knowledgeable about singing than the average person, but their voice was their voice and that was that. Now I think that’s wrong – singers must go through the same process as writers or painters or actors – the process of uncovering their authentic voices. This thought made me realize that I never gave myself a chance to be good singer (I was a decent one, once, but that was all) because I never loved my own voice. I wanted to sound like what I thought I should sound like, not like what I really sounded like. So when I failed to sound like what I thought I should sound like I gave it up. I’m sorry I did that now; I could have enjoyed that part of my life so much more if I had accepted who I was and not tried to be something I wasn’t. I thought my authentic singing voice was inferior to my ideal. Maybe it was, but because of this belief I never gave my own voice a chance to truly be heard.

All of this has led be back to where I started, which is that I can’t get hung up on trying to be something I’m not. I have to trust that I will discover what I need to know about myself as a writer through the act of writing.  Trying to define and interject my “voice” into my work is, I have decided, a potentially dangerous waste of time. I now believe that instead of chasing my voice, if I keep working at it and being patient, like all things worth having, it will come to me.

P.S. I’m the one in the top right corner.

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Thanks for reading my blog!  If you want to know more about me and my journey, check out my book “Everyday is Saturday” on Kindle.  The book is part diary, part memoir, about the first year after I was laid off from my dream job.  I think it has something to say to anyone who is struggling with change.

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