Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Writer’s Voice

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.


  1. I've never fully understood voice, but appreciate that it is unique to each author.
    Your rules make so much sense. Thank you for this.

    1. Thank you for your comment, It is one of those things that people when asked, say I can't explain it. I just know when I hear it. But I think it has more to offer us if we find a way to clarify it.Mary Oliver's inadvertent way, I believe has made her the best contemporary poet I've read. Raymond Carver is a close second. But Mary's voice is extraordinary.

  2. Thank you Christina - it is always wonderful to hear your voice.

    1. Is that a pun, Beca? You're fun and thank you.

  3. Christina, you certainly have a voice yourself! And very strong, easy to identify, when I think of you I think of silver, purity, strength, light...As to your definition of "voice", it is certainly one of the best ones I've come across and I completely agree with all you say. But now I must confess: I have a very real problem with "voice". Let me explain with an example. Two years ago, at a writers' meeting, I came across a fellow writer who had a very strong personality - a little raucous, a little aggressive, but explosively ironic and joyous at the same time, if you know what I mean - and that was the way she came across, the way she acted, the way she spoke.

    It turns out she had written a thriller, very noir and suspenseful, and when it came out, it was an instant success (she was lucky, she wasn't self-published, an Amazon imprint had picked her and done all the proper book launching you can imagine, with tons of reviews from their Vine Program members etc) This was her debut novel and it gathered hundreds of reviews (and she made quite a bit of money too). I rushed to read it, and since I knew her and liked her, I looked forward to writing a review too. I was sure it was going to be a great book and it started out real strong. Exactly in her voice. Raucous and harsh. Now that was ok because her main protag was just like her, raucous and harsh. But then the problems started as I kept reading (and here is why I don't tell you who I'm talking about!): every one of her characters had that harsh,raucous voice. They all spoke in the same way - even the descriptions of the various settings were done in that same voice. Frankly, I found it overbearing, and by page 200 I had lost patience. I've never read another book of hers since and of course I didn't write any review (I only review if I can give a book 4 or 5 stars - if I don't like it, I keep mum!)

    Which brings me to my point: yes, you can use your "voice" if it fits certain characters - maybe even your protag - but you can't do that throughout a whole novel. You need to reflect the variety of life. An author cannot and should not intrude in this way into his/her book. I feel very strongly about that. The greatest writers have always been able to slip into a variety of different characters and reflect this variety in dialogues, both internal dialogues (the way the character thinks) and external dialogues (how different characters communicate with each other). It's a little bit like actors, able to slip into different roles. But the writer has to be able to make all those different roles real, concrete. Each character has to come alive with his/her own voice, not the author's. So for a novelist - if you plan to become a "great" master - be ready to have many "voices", you'll need them, one for each of your characters!

    To me this is very important - nay, essential. So a writer needs to have a "voice", yes, he or she needs to be "true" to herself, but he/she also needs to be able to step back. To let the characters in the novel live their own life with their own voice.

    Now this said, the whole thing changes if you speak of poetry: there, you truly need a voice and the voice has to be strong and beautiful and truthful and it doesn't need to change as it does in a novel. Because that voice is quintessentially you, the poet and nobody else...

    1. I hear what you are saying, Claude. The voice this blog is talking about belongs to the writer. What often gets mistaken for "voice" is personality. You are describing her personality, and she may well be infusing her characters with her personality or parts of it because that is where she is relating from.If we make that mistake, all our characters begin to appear like the same character only with different names. A writer should be relating from their voice, not their personality. Relating from your voice means that which directs you and your life will be felt as an influence in your writing.It infuses your work like perfume floating around in a room. It will impact how you look at the natural world, what you pull out of it when you write description, how your characters see and feel. It will leave the reader with the essence of something they might not even be able describe but they know it's there. They'll know you wrote it.

  4. I love that you've taken the concept beyond style of writing and into the realm of spirituality. Our writer's voice is our soul speaking.

    1. It really hit me when I read what Mary Oliver said "had to be there" in her work. She was describing in what had to be there, the very essence of her, her soul, her spirit, yet she put it into words that were actionable. You saw it. There is no separation in reality. Our work,our art, every part of our life could be our soul expressing. Thanks for your insightful comment, Laura, and for stopping by.