I have always been fascinated by that which is elusive, there, but filmy and oh so hard to describe. A writer’s voice is precisely that sort of notion, and yet it is real and unique. I have read many people’s attempts to describe voice or define it, but it’s a slippery slope and most end up at the bottom of the hill none the wiser.
What it definitely is NOT is style – the mix of syntax, grammar, characters, plot, dialogue, etc., for all writers offer that, but not all writers have a voice. I've heard it described as a personal tone or flavor unmistakably that of the writer alone. That description scratches the surface of what we’re sensing, but it doesn't get to the heart of it. So why bother struggling with something so abstract? If it’s there, it’s there; if not, it’s not. Not so?
Literary agent, Rachelle Gardner offered an excellent explanation for what is meant by voice, plus it points to why voice cannot be ignored. She said, “To me, your writer’s voice is the expression of you. It’s that simple—and that complicated. Your voice is all about honesty. It’s the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears, and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.
“Voice is all about your originality and having the courage to express it.”
I would add that your voice is you as an authentic being. We are each unique, original with us. When we are authentic, that uniqueness, that originality is being expressed. Thus authentic expression is your true voice.
Children aren't born with made-up stories in their minds nor do they feel the need to mask whatever they sense. We all start out authentically us, until the thumb of life begins pressing down on us, and we struggle to squirm out from under it with one overriding question: What’s wrong with me? From there, we relentlessly reshape ourselves into what others seem to want. We are still original, but we are no longer authentic.
The reason finding one’s voice is so important is not just because agents and publisher are always looking for a new voice to promote. What matters more is that we live an authentic life, for that is our highest fulfillment. It is the only way we can live present and begin to conceive of the even greater dimensions that comprise our authentic expression.
Recently, I read a compelling book by Mary Oliver entitled, Winter Hours. It’s a mix of essays and poems, both media being ones in which she is expert. In the essay, “The Swan,” she begins to tell the reader what rules she established for her poetry. As I read them, I thought, oh my god, that’s where her voice—so unique, so exquisite—came from, because I realized that she was describing what I had recognized in all her poems. The elements were always there, and because they were, each poem, each essay was her authentic expression—her voice. In “The Swan” she explores the three rules she started out with:
Every poem I write…must have a genuine body, it must have sincere energy and it must have a spiritual purpose.
These phrases have profound meaning for her. They represent what she experiences deep within herself—what it feels like to be her. Later she added to that list. She said:
I want every poem to ‘rest’ in intensity. I want it to be rich with pictures of the world. I want it to carry threads from the perceptually felt world to the intellectual world. I want each poem to indicate a life lived with intelligence, patience, passion and whimsy (not my life—not necessarily— but the life of my formal self, the writer.
What she has done in determining these rules is to express who she is at her core. If we are to be authentic, we too must invite our expression to remain integral with our core.
So how do we find our voice—the question always asked at this point? Mary Oliver has provided that answer too. We draw up our own set of “rules,” meaning identify those things which are so real in us that we will not deny them in our art or our life. If we do that, our voice will echo through every level of our novel as an authentic expression of the truths that live as us.
Inspired by Mary Oliver, I've created my own list:
1. Every work of my fiction must ride on the back of a worthy story—one worth the telling.
2. The story must engage the reader at a level of connectedness possible only when characters (especially the protagonist) are authentic, thus compelling.
3. The story must imply or actualize a higher order of reality—what might be termed spiritual— to which human beings aspire and at times touch.
4. The words must associate rhythmically with one another, as best they can, and at times lyrically so they are capable of mirroring the evocative, intense nature of authenticity.
If you are a writer, this is a powerful exercise.
We all know when a writer has an authentic voice for we are magnetically drawn to their work. If you are committed to excellence in your art, then voice is not an option. You must find it. Not only will voice provide a firm base of readership with which you can share your stories, but it will also fulfill its promise of artistic work at its creative best. It may even spill over into the rest of your life, keeping you always in touch with what is original and real.
Finding your voice means you have found the reality within you and that is a life of merit.