Sep 25

About "Finding Your Voice" as a Writer

You'll hear a lot about "the writer's voice" and "finding your voice" as a writer. I wish I had a dime for every time I've heard that. It makes me grimace.

Yes, you have a voice, but it will develop entirely on its own as long as you keep writing. This is true for poets, prose writers, fiction writers, dramatists, and all literary artists.

This "voice," when developed, will distinguish you from all other writers just as the voice in your throat distinguishes you from all other speakers. Emily Dickinson's poetic "voice" is not Walt Whitman's. Ted Kooser's "voice" is not Kim Addonizio's. Dave Barry's "voice" is not David Sedaris' "voice," although they are contemporaries and both are bestselling comic prose writers from America's white middle class. You could tell them apart even if the name wasn't on their work.

Stressing and straining to "develop your voice" as a creative writer (poetry or prose) is useless, because it happens on its own, the way your speaking voice happened. And it takes time, just like your speaking voice. You had a baby voice, a child's voice, then your adult voice. As an adult your voice doesn't exactly change but certain nuances appear. Same with creative writing.

Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, and Wilfred Owen, for example, all began by writing frothy crap along the lines of public taste. As they went afield in life and took risks in their poetry, and they kept writing, their mature voices materialized and amaze us to this day.

That's how it will happen to you.  You can't rush it, or develop "your voice" by trying, or following advice. You can't stop it from happening, either. A teenage writer's voice, often inspired by or imitating other writers' voices, will develop into a distinctive voice at around age 30. Painters develop their individual styles much the same way and on the same timeline. Picasso, for example, was born in 1881; his famous breakthrough painting, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," was painted in 1907. If you begin artistic ventures as an adult, expect "finding your voice" to take 6 to 15 years.

After your voice finds you, workshopping won't water it down and trying to write like someone else will fail. Your voice will refuse to desert you. 

When anyone starts telling writers that it's really important to work on "developing their voice," I leave the room. The only important thing is to keep writing.

Jun 13

Discovering the Power of the Written Word

I come from a long and possibly unbroken line of non-writers and non-readers, and was about eight when my mom read my description of a family trip to visit her father up north. I must have written it for a teacher because in the piece I used his surname, calling him "Grandpa Pongratz." "'Grandpa Pongratz'!" my mother howled, but not angrily; more as if she'd been startled from behind.

What had I done wrong, I wondered, and slunk away.

Now I'm beginning to see how what I wrote startled her.
  • I had re-named, for an audience, the man she had called Dad and I had called Grandpa. 
  • In doing this I had asserted my difference from her. Mom did not at that time perceive us kids as differing from her in any important way. I was the eldest and my job was to break such news ("Mom, we're different from you") and absorb the response.
  • In writing "Grandpa Pongratz" I had used the power to name. Such power in the hands of an eight-year-old--anybody would freak out.
  • By writing, I had transplanted Grandpa from our entirely private family hothouse and placed him in the light normally reserved for public figures.
  • Words on paper strike much harder than information conveyed verbally.
  • Until that moment her father had not existed on paper, in prose, independently of his own hand.
Writers forget how non-writers perceive us. We forget how amazed and hypnotized we were to see our very first work in print. We might even have succumbed to it ("The first time I saw my name in print, I knew--").

Reminded of this by seeing Indian Paintbrushes growing in the roadside today, and remembering that long-ago car trip, on which Mom told me the name of those orange flowers.

More on this later...
Feb 21

How Embarrassed I Am, Part I

Every writer has an embarrassment or two somewhere -- the first few publications, things we were so proud of that never should have seen the light of day. My first published short story was about a lesbian rejected by her family. The next was about an African-American woman who loved the blues and Hollywood musicals. I knew nothing about either situation including musicals but figured hey, it's fiction, I can make up what I want, right? Can't I? It's a free country! In my teens I put extra swearwords into a short story after I won a prize for it and got to read it aloud to a roomful of fellow students. Several years later I witnessed another young writer doing the same, and felt about 50 percent better, although my embarrassment is still such that 35 years later I will not attend class reunions. And what a firebrand I was, writing editorials for the student paper, so much so that I got taken to the woodshed by the faculty advisor. All I can say is: Wow, I had nuts! It was the 1970s! The first poet I ever saw was Nikki Giovanni, who wrote about cleaning her gun, for Chrissakes. I was reading feminist poetry in The Hand that Cradles the Rock and Mountain Moving Day. I don't recall that I ever read any short fiction before producing my own.

I was going to say how I can't forgive myself my premature publications and missteps, but realized that writers grow up in public, more so, than say, business or pre-med majors. There is still every chance that a fire will consume the archives. I wonder how it'll be for the young writers growing up online. I sure am glad there was no Internet when I was 19.