by Michael Mohr
Finding your literary “voice” in writing is tough, no question. So much of it is organic, visceral, from within. What does that mean? Well, basically it means that you’re not likely to “find your voice” from an MFA class or from a writing seminar or from a writing conference or from a book focusing on voice. All the above mentioned certainly can help. But to truly find your voice, if “find” is really the most accurate word (I’d say “discover”), it’s really more about your confidence, your life experience, and your sense of self as it relates to the world.
For me, I spent years and years and years learning to land on a/my voice. In my early-mid twenties, after reading Jack Kerouac’s epic autobiographical saga, On the Road, I, too, needed to transcend the mundane and ordinary and hitchhike across the country. I did this, over the course of many years, and met some of the most interesting, zany, and fascinating people in the world.
Also, I gained insight into people’s lives, how they think, what they say, why they do the things they do; what makes them tick. I also had some wild experiences on the road: I met women I “fell in love with”; I made new buddies; I hiked alone in the mountains for a week at a time; I wandered the streets of New York City, Boston, Philly, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, etc, learning the streets like they were my own backyard.
And during all of this I was constantly writing in my little leather-bound journal, telling the stories I knew I’d use later: Pages and pages and pages of notes.
Eventually, when I went back to college and got my writing degree, and after joining a professional writing critique workshop, I wrote a 26-page autobiographical “story” about a time when I’d been stuck in Mexico and had gotten into a bad situation after drunkenly passing out in an alleyway when I was 23 years old. (Ah, the wild days.)
I brought the story to the workshop and the other writers in the group loved it but they said I needed to keep rewriting to find that “voice” and that it was too damn long. Months later I ended up with a much more deeply felt, confidently written 13 page story which started right away with action, instead of an exposition lead-up.
Also, I’d done something professional writers (as well as my writer mother and writer uncle) had been telling me for years: Get out of the way of your own writing. In other words: Stop trying to SOUND like a “writer,” and just write, to the best of your ability, what “happened.” As Hemingway said: Write what you know.
This story, Tightrope, ended up being the first story I ever had published by a magazine (Alfie Dog Press) and of course I was thrilled. From there I hit the ground running and never looked back.
But I return, again and again, to this notion of life experience and self awareness and confidence. People—meaning readers—will know if you’re full of crap. They can detect a false voice or a false sense of plot or story or character. Which is why you should always be honest with your readers, always “tell the truth.”
Of course the great thing about fiction writing is that we routinely tell lies in order to expose a bigger truth. But my point is that you’ve got to convince your readers that your lies are really the truth. One of the ways you effectively pull this off is by having a powerful, authentic voice.
Again, you can learn the “mechanics” of voice (if there are really “mechanics” of voice: Diction, syntax, language, cadence) but it will only come off the page properly and feel “right” if it’s done primarily from either real life lived experience, or, if it’s totally from your imagination (perfectly wonderful!) then it’ll come from writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting again. Voice is achieved through countless rewriting.
What is voice? It’s a gut feeling. It’s the narrator’s “voice” reverberating in the back of your head. It’s what the narrator sounds like to you. It’s the driver of the story. If you’ve got a killer plot and strong, 3-D characters and fantastic writing but a weak voice…you’re still doomed. Voice is three-quarters of any serious novel, of that I am convinced. Got a good voice and you can repair almost anything. Have a weak/flat voice and you’re in trouble.
Readers may not know this consciously but that’s mostly what draws them into novels; the voice, pulling them along. Like Holden Caulfield’s voice in The Catcher in the Rye. Kerouac’s/Sal’s voice in On the Road. Or Jennifer Egan’s voice in A Visit from the Goon Squad. Jack Gantos in The Trouble in Me. John Green’s Looking for Alaska. (Especially with YA you need to capture that spellbinding, sticky, authentic voice.) Or for that matter Joan Didion’s voice or Toni Morrison’s or J.K. Rowling. Etc.
My advice for any aspiring or beginning writer out there trying to attain a voice is to write your ass off. Write and then rewrite, again and again, until you feel somewhat confident about what you’re writing. Also, bring a journal around with you when you travel. Write stuff down. When you get the chance, allow yourself to journal or “free-write” about said experience you’re interested in.
Allow yourself to write only for you at first. Be the authority. Have agency over the material. Let yourself feel confident about what you’re slapping down on the page. Because you have actually lived the experience in real life you should be able to feel rather comfortable/confident about writing on the subject. How do you sound in real life?
Try to write the voice in your mind/head. Listen to others talk, on the subway, the train, on the bus, at work, during lunch. Secretly eavesdrop. Take down surreptitious notes. Record yourself talking. Record a conversation with yourself and a friend. Listen to the recording. Get a feel for your inner voice, your inner feeling, your inner truth. This is what we want on the page. We want that inner voice to come out. We want your vulnerability, your courage, your fear, your insecurity. Writing is about turning inside out, exposing, letting go, releasing.
I believe voice is a passionate call for attention. I HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY is what voice truly screams in every line. It reaches out and snags the reader’s collar, shaking them out of their stupor and forcing them to read/hear/listen. A good author will hold a reader’s attention by not only creating solid, interesting, authoritative characters, not only by including a fantastic, complex plot, but by shaking the hand of the reader in one simple way: Creating a voice which bonds the reader to the narrator and doesn’t let go.
Like self confidence in life, it isn’t something someone can give you. It isn’t something you can find randomly when you aren’t looking for it. It isn’t something that happens one day out of the blue. It—voice—is a manifestation of much writing and rewriting, lived, true experience, a lot of reading of other authors’ books, and of carving out that groove in your own craft again and again and again, until you feel, and more importantly until readers’ feel, that you’ve discovered a true, authentic voice.
I wish it were easier, more clear-eyed and simple. But, in my experience, it’s not. The good news is that if you’re a serious, disciplined writer it seems to come somewhat naturally over time. The bad news is that, if you’re just getting started, it might take you a few years, or more, to really find/discover/nail that elusive, magical “voice” that all writers seek. Again, you can get that MFA. You can read those craft books on voice. (And they’re out there.) You can ask writing teachers and workshop groups. And those are all, or all can be, helpful. I am not putting any of those things down. Period.
All I’m saying is: For voice, in my view, your best bet is to get that life experience, write a lot, rewrite a lot, read a lot, and, as you grow stronger as a penner of prose, you’ll begin to see that sense of authority in your writing increase. Thus, like a muscle which slowly becomes stronger, your literary voice will strengthen.
Before you know, you’ll be lifting readers to new, special heights.
Guest post contributed by Michael Mohr. Michael is a Bay Area writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in: Adelaide Literary Magazine; Bethlehem Writers’ Roundtable; Fiction Magazines; Tincture; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest; Writer Unboxed and MASH. His writing/editing website and blog is http://www.michaelmohrwriter.com .