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Grasping the Wind: Describing the Nature and Features of Voice

We all know the feeling. We sit on our couches and our eyes move left to right and down the page, following the words this master has created. How do we know he’s a master? Well, just look! The way the writer uses the words, runs them together in strings of perfection that create the uninterrupted fictive dream. The writer uses his knowledge of his craft to a T. And what’s more? He sounds like no other writer. He sounds, in a word, like himself. It’s just impossible to think that he sounds like anyone else out there writing or having written. This magic, this seeming like one’s self is in my opinion the pinnacle of what a writer should aspire to. This pinnacle has a name and it’s bandied about in all circles of publishing, writing, and critiquing. It’s referred to as voice.

Okay, so we know what voice looks like when we see it. We know all the agents and editors and publishers and even our selves are looking for it. So why the hell can’t we find it? Why is it so damn unattainable? And worse, why is it we can’t see it in ourselves? When I was younger I spent way more time than was necessary or even helpful in trying to decide if I had found my voice yet. The answer, as you might have guessed, was no–I hadn’t found my voice yet. Like most, I didn’t even know what it would look like when I did it because it was my work I was trying to assess as having voice or not. What few people will tell you is the necessary tenets or qualities of voice and how it is attained. Now, this won’t be an end-all be all treatise on “5 FAIL-SAFE WAYS TO MAKE SURE YOU FIND YOUR VOICE!” Hardly. Though it would be wonderful to have something like that laid out in front of us so that all we would have to do would be to follow the recipe. Or would we? The point is that writing is far too mystical, alchemical, and artful for it to be as simple as all that. However, I will try to give some sort of bearing on how to go about finding your voice.

First, the definition. Last year, I attended the Tin House Writers Workshop and one of the first talks given was given by the Tin House editors. It was called the “Tin House View” and had to do with voice and why it was so important and, more importantly, just what the fuck it was. During the conversation, it was the Editor in Chief of Tin House Magazine, Rob Spillman who said, when asked to elaborate on the concept of voice, that voice was “having a sense of authority that tells the reader that the writer who wrote this knows what he is doing and is telling this story for a reason.” Definition one, right there. I hope a lightbulb is going off in your head as you read this, because it did to me when I sat and listened to this talk. Rob’s words pulled some sort of veil from my eyes and there it was: an actual almost touchable definition of voice.

The second definition of voice comes from a completely difference source. This summer I spent lots of time smoking various substances and lounging around the backyard with my favorite fellow writers. One day we got into a discussion about Quentin Tarantino (who I hate and who my friends seem to have some sort of affection for). I contended that it seemed like he was a one-trick pony who used violence as both a means and an ends and pretty much nothing else. My friends argued and I was finally persuaded to try and watch Kill Bill. The dialogue ended there, but then my friend Aaron said something that caught my attention.  He said, essentially, that the thing that made him admire Tarantino so much was that everything he did in his films seemed to have been on purpose, for a specific reason. Nothing was random or an accident. It just fit. Now, that didn’t necessarily convince me that Tarantino was great–but it did spark an idea in me that that was exactly what voice was. Filmmakers–Kubrick, Cohens, Fincher, Bergman–just like writers, end up developing a style (see: voice) that is recognizable almost at all times. Though this definition is very much like the previous one, I’d like to point out how it is not. The first definition concerned itself with authority, meaning staking a claim for respect and attention. Declaring oneself to be serious and worthy of consideration. This second definition focuses much more on intent of the artist and the perception of his work. In a word, this definition is concerned with control. The ability to control one’s work to the point that everything he does seems on purpose. This is the definition I will mostly be focusing on, though as I focus on the second definition, glimpses of the former one will continually rear up. Because the first definition is the one we have the least control over, seeing as how it relies on the perception of the reader to recognize the writer’s authority. But on the other hand, the second definition contains something in it that we can do something about, because it refers to action, to control, to agency. The first definition is the final product that should be arrived at after mastering the second one.

Okay, so now I’m going to ask you to forget about voice. Why? Because it’s for all intents and purposes, useless. Then what the fuck was all that going on about for (checks the word counter at the bottom left here…)950 words (that’s before the parenthetical)? I’ll tell you. If you want, go open a document right now and start writing like yourself. Write a story sounding like yourself. How far did you get? I know how it went, at least I know how it went for me when I used to try that: nowhere. The reason for that is because I was basically trying to reach the thing in an equation that lies on the other side of the equal sign separate from everything else. I was trying to reach the sum without investigating and mastering each of the parts. That’s called cheating (or so my high school Algebra teacher not so kindly informed me years ago).  Voice in fiction is what happens when all of the other parts of the alchemical process that is writing has been mastered (which are never really mastered, by the way). If you really want to reach your voice, look at your own writing that’s already there. It’s there. Just like the David was already there in the marble–all Michelangelo had to do was trim the excess. That’s your job as well.

Your writing is you. Your voice is you translated into your writing. Now all that’s left is to decide what reflects you. What do you concern yourself with when you write? These are the basis of everything in your writing. Character, point of view, setting, dialogue, description, and style (word usage, sentence length, cadence, etc.): these are the ingredients to your writing and to your voice. They are also the ingredients to the craft, the art that we dedicate ourselves to for some reason. The characters you write about, the places that shape your characters and say something about your stories, the ways in which people speak or don’t speak, the details you decide to turn your spotlight on, the images that strike you and seem to be yours you understanding them so well, the way in which you decide to construct your sentences and the words you choose to use–these are all the things that go into creating the marble block. Every piece has a meaning. It’s for you to decide what the meaning is. And here is where I leave you. From here on out, my advice, in fact, anyone else’s advice as you write that first draft and build up your marble block will cease to help. This is where writing is undeniably an art. No one can do it for you and you will never be able to do it unless you put yourself and only yourself into it. This is where all the agency in the world is in your hands. Nowhere else will you have as much control and responsibility as you do right here. I hope this inspires you, because god damn it, it inspires me. The idea that I’m the only one responsible for what becomes of this block of marble in front of me? People would most definitely kill to feel like they have this much control over something in their lives. We are the gifted ones who choose to do this as a profession, maybe if we can’t do it full time, even as a hobby. Some days it may feel like a curse, some days we have to open a vein and bleed to write. Some days it comes so easily we look back and think: who the hell wrote that? It’s a mysterious process we’re involved in and all the while we’re building up to the point where we have to trim the excess of the draft, the marble block we’ve created. This last part is where we surely shape the block into the David, into our voice. This part is called revision. And it’s all about coolness under pressure, of level-headedness–not the white-hot burn of inspiration.

So here we are. The last step of the process, which is kind of a never-ending one if you think about it. Whereas the writer in the heat of writing the first draft simply stops when he reaches the end, the process of revising is the last painful part for most writers. Having to go back and point out all the pockmarks and acne scars in this one, big enormous darling of his, the writer most likely (as I do) balks at the task, naively hoping that maybe there won’t be anything wrong with the work, that it will be an unstoppable Kerouac-ian bull of a book. You will be wrong. And I’m not so sure that Kerouac wasn’t just a bit of a liar, claiming that he didn’t edit anything of On the Road–it’s a nice thought, but probably a lie. And so the writer goes back and highlights, underlines, draws arrows, puts question marks on his beautiful darling. Then, as if this wasn’t enough, after applying the requisite flourishes and corrections, he then asks his friends, his most trusted advisors and respected colleagues to get in on the action, marking their own doubts in the form of question marks and underlines and what not. Though this seems indecent, this will actually be the most helpful part of the entire process, so pay attention. The time will soon come when your writer buddies will gather together and talk about your work. Take notes. They say what was good, what they thought was working, what  connections they saw between character, setting, description, dialogue, theme, etc. Then they will say what problems they had with it. Take notes. They will ask if you intended certain things, they will suggest improvements to draw the theme tighter or to flesh out characters, or any other number of things. Takes notes. Get a damn tape recorder. Anything to remember all these things flying around the air that could be useful. Just remember this: no matter who these people are–friends, colleagues, lovers, brothers or sisters, brothers or sisters in law, your word is law when it comes to your own work. You can take all their advice or none. The most important thing is that you learn what problems readers other than yourself are finding and that you find ways to fix those problems. Simple. I hope.

So there you are. After you have written something and edited it, revised it within an inch of its life, hopefully you will have something that reflects your voice. After the product is finished, maybe give it to the same people who revised it and maybe even give it to someone who hasn’t, someone who doesn’t read much or hasn’t read your stuff. My brother hardly reads at all, but he’s one of my best friends. We have late-night conversations that run until the sun rises. He gives great advise and he’s incredibly smart. So I give him a story of mine when I think it’s ready to go out. His word normally tells me when something is ready to go out. I ask him to let me know if it seems like whoever wrote this knows what he’s doing, like everything is doing what it’s doing because it’s supposed to be that way. This is where the first criterion of voice comes into play. By the end of your revision process, your story should claim an authority, claim that it deserves to be listened to and that you know what you’re doing. And maybe even more importantly, it should seem by the end of your story that it is being told for a reason. If your reader finishes with your story and says to himself, “Why the hell did I read this?” Or “What’s the point?” somewhere along the way the story lost the reader. This is not to say that every reader will respond the same way to your story. But if your most trusted readers are still missing the point, it’s back to the drawing board.

At this point I feel like I should say something really inspirational about voice and all writing in general. I guess all I have to say is that I hope that every day at some point while you’re writing your story, poem, or essay that you look up and stop and think how lucky you are to be doing this–to be crafting something that is drudged up from within and shines as an example of who you are, of what and how and when and where and, maybe most importantly, why you are. If, in the end of your story, after all that work, you feel like you have achieved this, then you will be luckier than most who attempt it–and, most likely, you will have found your voice.


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