With a workshop pending (one I’m giving, not taking), I’ve been thinking about what to say–what can be taught, what can’t.  And that leads me to thinking about ‘voice’ since that is where we’ll be starting.

A writer’s voice is one of those ‘you know it’s good when you read it, but it’s difficult to verbalize’ things.  But I’m a writer, verbalizing is what I do.  So it’s worth tackling.  Also this seems good timing for the topic–American Idol is starting a new season (maybe the last what with Paula gone and Simon heading out the door, and it’s tempting to wonder if he’s missing that love/hate thing with Paula or just exhausted–how does anyone sit through that many auditions in one lifetime?).

(Confession time–I’ve voted only once…well, okay, twice.  For David Cook. Yeah, they suckered me into thinking other David had the lead, and I fell for it. And boy was I so happy Adam Lambert did not win and get saddled with that awful ‘idol must sing song’ they had.  Sometimes second is a good place to be.)

Anyway, Idol does one thing brilliantly–they show how easy it is to have a bad voice.  Maybe it’s nerves.  Or song choice.  Or simple delusion.  But they show how the “that’s a good voice” is not always subjective–there are folks who can’t sing worth a damn, and that’s painfully clear.  Same goes for writers–there are folks who can’t write worth a damn.

Maybe it’s nerves.  Or story choice.  Or simple delusion.  And I do think that nerves figure into a large part of a bad writing–folks tend to cramp up or go all stiff when faced with a blank page.)  But while you can fix nerves–build confidence, acquire technique, do breathing exercises–and you can fix story choice with better ones, there’s not much that can be done for delusions.  And you can’t really teach someone to have ‘a voice’. 

Now, you can point in the direction for a writer to look to that voice.  And there are techniques to develop voice–plain old writing helps more than anything.  But it’s still something that every writer must find for herself–or himself. Voice comes from experience, education, upbringing. It comes from what you read, and personal taste.  It’s shaped, just as an artist’s eye, or a singer’s voice, is shaped by teachers, mentors, and by what you taken in and put on the page.  There are so many things that go into making ‘a voice’ that it’s no wonder it can’t really be taught.

But I wonder if we’d have more really good writers if a few more teachers at least tried to tackle this?  Or if a few more writers went out looking for their voice, or spent time developing voice?  I know that when you take on a physical skill–riding horses, or dancing–you always want to look at the teacher’s style because that’s going to be your style, too.  You imprint like a duckling on the instructor–that old ‘monkey see, monkey do.’  And maybe that’s the core issue–writers are generally too busy writing to do much teaching.  Either that or they don’t have the credentials, or those who teach writing have been to college and have taken courses, but they haven’t been in the wilderness looking for their voice either–so what they pass along is a lot like BBC-mid-Atlantic don’t get in the way voice.  Which, come to think of it, is at least an okay voice.

So maybe this is something every writer has to find on her own, sort of a rite of passage (and I’ll resist the obvious pun). And the question then becomes–how can you give someone better sign pointers along that path?

5 thoughts on “Voice

  1. Hi! I agree with you that focusing on the concept of voice in school (high school, after the technical basics of writing are theoretically in place) would be immensely useful. I was gratified to learn that the SAT now includes a section on writing, but that again, I think, puts a spotlight on the technicalities.

    Finding “your voice” as a writer–or becoming aware that finding your voice isn’t optional and that there will, indeed, be one in there to find–is a process not only requiring a lot of time but a lot of writing as well, every single day.

    And then there needs to be enough awareness about the concept of voice for the writer to recognize the emergence of his or hers when the time eventually comes.

    Thanks for the interesting thought!


    • That does bring up a good question — when is a good time for a writer to go looking for this. It might well be better to let voice emerge — teaching style before technique might cause more confustion than anything.

      • Yes, I agree. I think the technique, which we know can be taught, needs to be there first. I’m not really sure that an authentic voice could emerge without the basics in place anyway. Sort of like you need to know how to drive a car before your above-average talent for excelling on the speedway track can take hold.

  2. Yes–you see that with the singing analogy. Singers with some kind of training and technique, that can give them a lot of strenght to lean on. Without it, they have to use talent, and sometimes that can go south on you.

  3. And speaking of singing and talent sometimes going south, I need to get myself ready for night #2 of American Idol’s 9th season. I might be an aging baby boomer, but I just can’t help myself with that show.

    I hope we’ll stay in touch and that you’ll follow along as I move forward with my Journey (see Blog Launch Posting on November 4). I’m really enjoying your comments and our dialogue exchange.


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