Building a Path for Your Voice

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I’ve heard a lot about this thing called the writer’s voice…as though it’s some magical sound thingy that slides through the night and whispers breezes of joy into the ears of the reader…or rips through the fabric of the reader’s comfort zone and leaves a path of raised eyebrows and bumpy skin.

I’ve heard about this thing called the writer’s voice that readers and editors and critics wrap tightly around a pedestal and raise it into the sky with each successive publication of “THIS NEW VOICE!”

And therein lies the secret of becoming a successful writer: finding that distinctive voice that will distinguish you from the rest of the pack and vault you into riches and fame or critically correct obscurity. And your writing doesn’t even have to be good. It can be crap. But if it’s distinctive crap, it’ll sell…once the voice is out there, recognized, familiar and well-marketed.

But voice isn’t a style. Styles can be copied. It’s more like a personal resonance, a sense of the rhythm and flow of the way words would be used if they were read out load on a street corner, rise above the traffic and human bustle and still be heard. It’s the rhythm and flow of a human presence as distinctive as fingerprints and DNA…a rich flow of visual diction as well-composed as a great painting or photograph. It’s the rendering of thought through words so that it can’t be mistaken for any other voice.

The man who punctuates every sentence and thought with “fuck” is just as distinctive and memorable as a great orator. Once you hear it, you’ll never forget it no matter how much you’d like to…and you’ll always recognize it.

“So, Biff,” said the fox, “where do you find this thing called voice?”

“You don’t find it,” I said. “It finds you.”

“And just how might it find you?” said the fox, a little too arrogantly for my liking.

“Well,” I said, “one way is through mindless writing.”

“You’re joking, right?” said the fox.

“Let me explain…”

I teach a writing workshop call Writing Hurts Like Hell (and it does). In the first class I introduce my students to a this thing called mindless writing that I borrowed from Dorothea Brandt, who introduced it in her 1934 book On Becoming a Writer. It’s a little book, but it’s big on wisdom and great advice for anyone with aspirations of becoming a writer.

Here’s the gist of it: pick a word, a topic, a thought, a dream, a memory, a sentence, an object within view, a feeling, a concern, a theme, a conversation you overheard, a scent, a worry…anything that pops into your head.

Pick a length of time you intend to write. Start with five minutes. Being the cruel malicious bastard I am, I make my students start with fifteen minutes. Some of them run screaming from the class and drink too much for the rest of their lives. Now, start writing (preferably by hand with a pencil, pen or stick and sand…this has actually been proven to engage the mind more than a keyboard) about your chosen whatever.

Here’s the catch…you can’t stop writing until you’ve reached the time you set for yourself. If you stop to correct something, rewrite it or change it in any that will make it different from what you wrote…God will kill you. You have to keep writing even if you run out of things to say about your chosen whatever. You might have to change to another whatever or just repeat the last sentence you wrote until something new comes along. When this happens to my students, they write something like, “I hate this bastard, Biff. I hate him. I hate him. I hate him!” Surprisingly, this can occasionally lead to some genuinely insightful mindless writing.

But it’s worth the pain.

Mindless writing helps bring out the individual voice without judgement, editing or criticism. That voice that’s always inside you trying to get out, but pushed back inside with left brain thoughts like, “This is too flowery.” “This is too plain.” “This sucks.” We tend to write the way others expect us to write so we write for them, not for ourselves. We write in such a way as to gain the approval of those for whom we write, even if they’re imaginary spectres looking over our shoulders, and if we imagine they don’t approve of what we’re written, we scratch it out, delete it…deny it.

The last place you’ll find your own personal voice is in the approval of others. It just won’t happen.

Do this every morning. That’s the best time. It’ll give the right side of your head a boost that’ll charge your mundane day with creativity. But more importantly, the more you do it, the easier it will become. It will gain coherency, structure and uniqueness. Your voice will find you. It’s in there…you just have to give it a pathway out.

“So,” said the fox, “any other ways to find your voice?”

“Yep,” I said. “Get into arguments with yourself.”

“But…”

It’s a little like mindless writing except it has a definite structure: a dialogue. You write something down, complete with quotation marks and then disagree with what you said, complete with quotation marks. Then defend your statement. And go back and forth like this for a page or two or more if you’re really into it. You’d be surprised at how many times you’ll lose an argument with yourself.

The key to letting your voice find you with this way is to believe everything you say, on both sides of the argument. You’ll develop an objectivity that rises above criticism because your the one criticizing on both sides of the fence. You’ll rise above the na sayers because you will be them…along with the yea sayers. Think of it as a battle between your right brain and your left brain taking place in the stadium of your left brain.

Always good to hedge your bets.

Argue hard and furiously. And, unlike total all-out extreme mindless writing, you can stop and think about your arguments and counter arguments.

So how does your voice find you in this medley of dissention? Well, nothing brings out the inner self as convincingly as a good heated argument. Argue with yourself when you’re feeling kind of groovy. Argue with yourself when you’re angry at something. Argue with yourself when you have nothing else to do. Hell…have a drunken argument with yourself. Yell at yourself. Yell back. Sometimes, do some name-calling. You’d be surprised at what you may call yourself that might give pause for thought.

One little hint…keep it in writing. Don’t get into a shoving match or a fist fight. That’s called “hearing voices in the head.” That’s not what you want.

Keep this up and after a while, you’ll find one side winning more and more frequently. That’s your voice. You’ll know when you hear it because it will have found you.

This is one I don’t teach in my workshop because if I give away all my secrets, they won’t need me anymore and they’ll kill me. This is how Kung Fu masters die.

One last way to let your voice find you…blog. But write in a word processing program first…or pen, pencil, stick in sand. That way you’ll be writing for yourself. Then decide what you want to share and what you want to keep for yourself…and revise accordingly. Not giving a flying bat’s ass what anyone thinks about me…I never delete anything. I wrote it for myself…it’s my fucking voice and I argued and wrote mindlessly for millennia to get it, so put up or shut up.

Don’t mean to insult either of you, but that’s how I feel. You should feel the same way too.

(Next blog on voice…voice in photography…coming soon…or later.)

BTW, stopped making my daily decisions today. Reached where I wanted to be. Now to just go with the flow because I know where to swing the rudder.

2 thoughts on “Building a Path for Your Voice

  1. I attended the 1st ever Writer’s Workshop at UNB many, many years ago. A great deal was made of ‘finding your voice’, I could hear the ‘voices’ of others, but not my OWN (probably because it was so much a part of me) Having no confidence at that point in my life, I decided my writing therefore must be rubbish (although John Metcalf told me I wrote like D.H. Lawrence ???… at that time, I’d never read him), so I stopped writing seriously for 20 years.

    Will read Brandt’s book on your recommendation, Biff….the one I loved was Stephen King’s book on writing: he more or less just said stop talking and worrying about it and just get on with it! Pretty simple, yet golden.

    Really enjoy your blog and the writing of someone whose voice I hear clearly. Here’s the deal…you keep writing, I (and the other person) will keep on reading.

    And I really have to ask…..does the fox sound like Johnny Cash?

    • The fox wishes he were Johnny Cash. Glad you enjoy the blog…it’s my way of getting myself primed to start back on my next novel after Christmas. But I’ll still be blogging. And you were luck to have studied under John Metcalf…he was brilliant.

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