Voice is one of those elusive qualities like love or irony that everyone knows the meaning of until it comes time to define it. A sucker for trouble, I just wrote a book about finding my voice--Writing Is My Drink: A Writer's Story of Finding Her Voice (and a Guide to How You Can Too). In the process of writing this book, I spent a lot of time thinking about what voice is, ferreting out where it lives (and where it does not) and figuring out why some of us have to go on a trek to find it. Here's a short list of what I found out:
1. Leave Your Professional Self at the Office. One reason why voice and personality often do not show up vividly and automatically in the work of emerging writers is that our voices have been beaten out of us in school and in the workplace, both of which have individuality-tamping expectations and norms that regulate both form and content. The scholarly and professional styles that earned you good grades and your way up the ladder won't win the hearts of readers of fiction or memoir. These readers are looking for the real deal. These readers want the feral you, the wild you that answers to no one.
So how do you leave all you've learned about coloring within the lines behind at five o'clock? You might have to do some investigating to see what works for you, but for me one answer has been doing my "real writing" in longhand. Somehow by getting off the computer and back to pen and paper, I'm able to send the message to myself that it's okay for the real me to come out and play. I can mess with the syntax if I want and voice unpopular opinions. I can start a sentence with "and," end it with a preposition, and let it run on in a way that would have irritated the hell out of Mr. Dashwood-Jones, my 9th grade English teacher.
2. Find Your Tribe and Gather Them Around You. Another essential step to finding your voice is locating those writers you truly love and immersing yourself in their work. Both steps -- the finding and the immersing -- involve reading. A lot. Read widely and outside of whatever it is that you believe you are "supposed" to read to be well read, hip, or cultured, and seek the writers who truly excite you. Your list won't look exactly like anyone else's. Because of my interests in first person narrative, the feminist, the comic, and probably the prurient, my lifetime list of writers I've loved happens to include Woody Allen, Anne Lamott, Erma Bombeck, AND Xaviera Hollander. Unless you and I are actually twins separated at birth, I'm guessing that you won't happen to have all those writers on your list.
3. Read, read, read. Once you find these writers -- your tribe -- own them as the writers who are your teachers for the work that you want to do. Read and reread them. Pull chapters apart. Pull paragraphs apart. Ask yourself, "How does she do it?" And then try to create in your own work a technique from one of your writers that delights you -- maybe it's starting a chapter mid-scene or having the characters talk straight to the audience. Following an impulse that you love in another writer takes you very quickly into the heart of you and your voice. What we love points us in the direction we yearn to go.
4. Write, write, write. It's a cliché of the American sensibility that we want all our desires fulfilled instantly and are petulant when faced with the long haul, but I definitely witness this thinking at play in my writing students and can see how it undermines their progress as writers.
Writing has a long apprenticeship. I've heard it said more than once that it usually takes a good decade of earnest effort before your work on the page matches your vision. Settle in for the long haul and do the work. You're going to write lots and lots of pages that fall short of your expectations for your work, pages that you will -- gulp -- throw out. That bad work is all part of it, part of the road to finding this thing called your voice. Yes, there will be great stuff here and there all along the way and that's what keeps you going. But writing is a craft; inspiration comes quickly and mastery comes slowly. Accept this and you'll be less likely to walk away from the work of revision.
5. Head straight into all that is particular and quirky about you. Finding your voice is about coaxing your essence to show up on the page. Writers we think of as "voicey" don't sound like anyone but themselves, and they let the aspects of their identity that make them particular -- their heritage, their families, their hometown, their obsessions, their predilections, their eccentricities, their syntax -- to shine through on the page. You don't have to have run with the bulls like Hemingway or have grown up in the South like Faulkner. You just have to -- like Frank McCourt, like David Sedaris, like Anne Lamott -- show us on the page the very you who is like no one else.
Want to learn more about voice in personal narrative? Come read my blog Writing Is My Drink or join me at my event Bird by Bird & Beyond with Anne Lamott in Petaluma, California on January 18th. See WritingIsMyDrink.com for tickets and details.