Finding My Voice

The Lovers by Rene Magritte, 1928

Thinking about voice, more like. To be clear, I’m still actively working out this whole voice thing, so with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s dive in.

There are two kinds of voice — there’s the voice you give your characters as you create them. They can be built from the outside in or the inside out depending on your writing process, but every character must have his or her own voice, which emerges from their individual histories, needs and goals. I call this “character voice.” Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, is a tour de force of character voice.

What I’m talking about today is Authorial Voice. What is it? And, what is a writer’s relationship to this mysterious idea of “voice”? Wikipedia has an interesting if quirky definition, which will serve. If you want more, I don’t think there’s a writing book out there that doesn’t talk about voice. Now that I’m in the writing trenches, I have some thoughts of my own.

There’s a lot of talk about developing your voice, but I’m not even sure what that’s supposed to mean. while a writer’s voice does indeed develop, I think that stating it this way leads to an artificial separation. There is no way to “develop your voice” outside of the work. And by work, I mean writing. 

Your voice is not a caged bird, it is not your pet. It’s not a thing that you can manipulate. To do good work you have to drill down through your conscious mind in search of the ore hidden in the dark and slippery subconscious. If you’re lucky, work hard, and take risks, you might even touch the vast and inarticulate unconscious. Strange and shocking things will flow through your fingers onto the page. That’s your voice. That feral half-understood thing. 

You don’t develop your voice or even find it, so much as realize it. Your voice is YOU, and for your voice to develop you must put yourself on the page fearlessly. This is why critiques sting even when they’re right. The thick skin you develop isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of what’s on the page, it’s to protect your voice, so that you can keep going.

Your voice will change. You are a moving target after all (and always should be) evolving and developing as a writer and as a human being.Your voice accretes across time and over your entire body of work. This is why you keep writing. We find our voices by simply writing story after story, just like we find ourselves by walking out into the world day after day.

The authority in your voice is born of the risks you take on the page, how deep you dig, how far out on the limb you are willing to go. But, I don’t believe you can achieve authority without acceptance. You must accept your voice as you accept yourself, as you accept your failures and your successes.

Every story I create is a frozen artifact of my voice at that moment, like a fleeting glimpse of myself in the mirror. I am in my pajamas, mouth frothing with toothpaste. I am putting on makeup for a date. One day I look smug, another, tired. Still, it’s me every time.

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