Howdy folks. Happy Saturday. I thought that today we’d spend some time talking about finding our voice.
Most writers, in hindsight, can identify the day it happened. Some, like Ray Bradbury, knew it shortly after he wrote it.
Here’s what he said about the experience in his essay “Run Fast, Stand Still” from Zen in the Art of Writing:
All during my twentieth and twenty-first years, I circled around summer noons and October midnights, sensing that there somewhere in the bright and dark seasons must be something that was really me.
I finally found it one afternoon when I was twenty-two years old. I wrote the title “The Lake” on the first page of a story that finished itself two hours later. Two hours after that I was sitting at my typewriter out on a porch in the sun, with tears running off the tip of my nose, and the hair on my neck standing up.
Why the arousal of hair and the dripping nose?
I realized I had at last written a really fine story. The first, in ten years of writing. And not only was it a fine story, but it was some sort of hybrid, something verging on the new. Not a traditional ghost story at all, but a story about love, time, remembrance, and drowning.
I think it’s also Bradbury who said we have to write about a million words to get to the good ones, give or take. I think that’s probably a safe bet. At the very least, it helps us frame our expectations.
I remember the first story I wrote that was me — my voice — emerging in a recognizable way for the first time. It was called “Blakely In His Heart” and it was about a Notary Public in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian society who runs into a returned Martian colonist sent to make contact with the survivors. When I finished it, I knew I’d done something different there and that the product was something Uniquely Mine. Of course, finding my voice there didn’t mean I continued to use that voice or that the story was publishable. It just meant it was me.
I’ve heard a few opinions on voice over the years — some say it is inherent within the writer and is caught more than taught. Others say it can absolutely be taught. I don’t have a strong opinion myself but I do think we can be nurtured in the direction of finding our voice and I think Bradbury, in another essay from Zen… called “How to Keep and Feed a Muse” hits upon a few ideas for that. My thoughts on it are similar to his.
First, you just have a write. A lot. And then a lot more. Have you ever played a musical instrument? When I first picked up a guitar, I knew nothing. I used a chord chart and taught myself Em, D, G and A. This gave me enough to pull off a rather problematic “Scarborough Fair.” I had to look at the frets. I had to pause and look at the chord charts. But now, with 26 years of practice I have several hundred songs — their lyrics, chords, melodies — all snug in my brain. You can hand me a guitar and I can put on a show that you wouldn’t realize was unrehearsed because…well…because of practice. I play all the time. I learn as I play. And early on my covers sought to imitate the singers and songs I loved the most. But over time, my own voice and my own interpretation of those songs started to show up. Practice did that. And it was the same in my writing.
Second, I think we can find our voice by opening up our eyes and ears to voices beyond those we already know. Reading outside the genre. Reading essays and articles. Reading poetry (aloud.) Listening to music (not just the notes but the lyrics that accompany them.) Go to the library and roam the stacks. Pause here or there, wherever your fancy takes you, and pull down a book. Spend time with voices you ordinarily wouldn’t spend time with. Find someone in their 80s or 90s and get them to tell you stories about both the good and the bad old days. Listen for the rhythm, the cadence, of their storytelling muscles as they come to life.
Then, take everything you’ve experienced and go practice some more. Ease in for the long haul and try not to think about it.
Just write. Keeping writing. Write some more.
Next week, I think I’m going to start a short series on making characters real. Until then, Trailer Boy out.