One of the areas of craft I most frequently hear authors struggle with is voice—what is it, how do they find theirs, does it differ from story to story?
Part of the problem is that the term “voice” is used broadly in writing, referring to the narrative perspective of your story, how your characters speak, and also to the author’s sensibility that permeates the pages: that thing that makes a story by Toni Morrison or Kent Haruf or Pat Conroy instantly identifiable as theirs.
Today I want to talk about the latter definition of voice: your artist’s voice as the creator of your work. This can often be the hardest type to pin down because it’s ephemeral—the author’s voice should never draw reader attention away from the story and characters, but rather infuse it, enhance it.
Voice isn’t something you create; you already have it. It’s simply something you learn to free. Rather than look to manufacture or artificially construct your artist’s voice, let’s talk about ways to strip away what’s keeping it from finding its way naturally into your work.
I recently listened to a TED Radio Hour episode called “The Artist’s Voice,” in which four artists in varying fields talked about this key element of their art.
What I loved about their wildly differing stories was the common thread that each discovered their voice as they began to find and define themselves in the world, to realize what mattered to them and what they had to say about it.
Sometimes this happens organically as we get older. As we gain comfort and confidence inside our own skins and have the proverbial “fewer fucks to give,” the inhibitions, fears, and self-consciousness that once papered over our authentic voice fall away.
But you don’t have to wait for the freedom of age to excavate yours; we can find ways to dig down to our truest core and determine what we have to say, and how we want to say it.
The trick is to stop defining voice externally. So often we as authors, as artists, may unconsciously parrot the voices of the stories and authors we love most, that speak to us, unconsciously mimicking or trying to follow someone else’s blueprint of what strong voice should be.
But there is no “right” definition of voice, and identifying another author’s version of it doesn’t necessarily help you find your own.
So instead of trying to create your voice from the outside in, explore inside yourself and honor your own unique perspective.
But you can’t free your voice without knowing what that perspective is, so let’s look at a few key questions to start your journey to the center of the artist.
Who are you?
What makes you, you? In the TED show I listened to, each artist felt a strong connection to the parts of their background that most defined who they became as a person.
Director Jon M. Chu is a first-generation Asian American son of immigrants from a large and close-knit family who were raised to always be mindful of how they were perceived in the world, but also to find and pursue wholeheartedly what called to them. He grew up downplaying his Asian and immigrant heritage in his career, but later came to fully claim it in both his life and his art.
Poet Lee Mokobe grew up transgender in South Africa under apartheid, where there isn’t even a word in the Xhosa and Zulu language for “he” or “she,” only labels of traditional gender roles like “young man,” “old lady,” “grandmother.” They remember being stifled and rejected for expressing their authentic self before they began to assert it.
All our formative experiences are key to who we become—like the backstory and the “wounds” you give your characters that shape who they are in your stories.
Try defining yourself in three words or brief phrases and see what feels most intrinsic to your identity: Is it your background—where you’re from or how you were raised or the traditions and norms of your faith or cultural background? Your interests or career—artist, accountant, avocational gardener? Your role in your family or with loved ones—daughter, mother, brother, friend? Something else?
What matters to you?
What are the ideas, themes, causes, beliefs that matter most to you? What value system defines the way you live your life?
See if you can sum up in a phrase the core of what drives you—your urge to be of service, for instance, as a helper or teacher or friend; or your desire to right society’s wrongs; or the push to make your mark in the world. Digging out the core values that drive you is often a key to discovering your voice.
Choreographer Camille Brown loved the power of African-American social dance to unite a community, and started an online dance school to use the power of her art in fostering joyful social connections.
Amanda Gorman was driven to write by her urge to identify and speak out about political and social issues, and by her personal mantra that informs all her poetry: “I am the daughter of Black writers who are descended from freedom fighters, who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.”
Chef Geraldo Gonzales left the New York culinary scene to head the dining program at a resort on Grand Cayman, where he had carte blanche to fulfill his vision of reimagining the role of food in connecting cultures, people, and disciplines.
Our creative work is about more than simply telling an entertaining story; artists use their powerful, singular perspective and voice in their work to affect people: their emotions, their worldview, their ideas, their thoughts, their beliefs, their assumptions, prejudices, blind spots. You can’t deeply impact a reader unless you know what matters profoundly to you and infuse that into your work.
How do you express yourself?
I don’t mean how you intentionally craft your prose—but rather that organic, automatic voice in you that is an intrinsic part of what makes you, you.
Every person expresses themselves in their own way. It’s an amalgam of all the factors of your life: your family, where you were raised, your education, your background, your interests, experiences, ad infinitum.
Voice isn’t something we invent fresh or from whole cloth; we “borrow” from all the influences in our life to form our own unique voice. We’re all working with the same pigments but they combine in each of us in a different way.
Your job is to find the way the combination has truly become yours, not something you’re trying to mimic or something you saw or heard someone else do successfully. How do you express yourself in the privacy of your mind? How do you dance when no one is watching?
Choreographer Camille Brown talks about learning traditional Haitian dance for choreographing the Broadway musical Once on This Island and then telling the woman who taught her not to expect to see those actual dances verbatim in her work. She honored those original rhythms and moves but expressed them in her own “voice” as an artist.
Amanda Gorman writes and speaks her poetry in distinct rhythms with unexpected rhyming patterns; in interviews actor Russell Brand’s thoughts explode in a rapid-fire stream of Estuary English vernacular and dazzlingly broad vocabulary and an ever-gathering crescendo of ideas that tree-branch off in wild directions but always come back to a central thought.
Voice is more than how we phrase things—it’s how we think them, the patois that comes naturally to us as a result of all our influences, that comprises the way we communicate. It’s our reference points, the mental and emotional connections we make, the meanings we assign, the Byzantine paths our minds may forge whose routes and detours are ours alone.
Listening to podcasts is a wonderful way to start paying attention to those differences in how people express themselves in a medium where you can isolate their literal voice: the words they use, their phrasings, rhythms, tone, the music of their language, the unique way they may look at the world.
Keep noticing those same things in yourself. Keep asking yourself questions to circle in on these essential areas in claiming your voice.
And keep letting yourself allow all the richness and depth and uniqueness that is you to spill onto the page in your writing.
Over to you, authors: Do you feel you know what your author voice is? How did you define that, or do you instinctively claim it? If you have trouble freeing your voice in your writing, do you notice that you also struggle to do so in your life–to let yourself be fully authentic and loose your true self?