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listening to: Frank Sinatra

The always-interesting Ben Casnocha, author of My Start-Up Life has also blogged about David Allen's concept of collecting thoughts (see previous post). Ben himself uses the term "fringe thoughts", which I really like. Interesting stuff happens out on the fringes; it's important to pay attention.

I like Ben's recent post about voice, wherein he asks "Is writing advice around 'voice' like career advice around 'passion'?"

Ben writes:

In this informative Q&A with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux president Jonathan Galassi, he says:

"All of these [great] books are different in terms of their angles of attack, but they're all very strong voices. And they don't sound like anyone else. I think the voice is the most important thing—and then the shape. ... Voice is one way of looking at it but aliveness is another way. And I think voice is kind of being killed in a lot of writing today."

As with careers and passion, I don't disagree with the fundamental point here, but I do worry about the intensity with which this advice is dispensed to aspiring writers. How, exactly, are you supposed to improve the "voice" of your writing? How do you know whether the sound of the words on the page are most true to you? What is "aliveness" and can not writing have bounce in its step but still lack a singular voice that would be familiar if you heard it again? How does "find your voice" square with advice to "imitate the best"? How, exactly, are you supposed to synthesize the best of other writers you are imitating -- and how do you know whether your synthesis is your own voice finally or just a pale collection of imitative gimmicks, smashed together?

Perhaps all this self-consciousness about "voice" is a good thing, but perhaps, as the questions above illustrate, it's needlessly inducing stress, and distracting from other, better focus points of writers (namely doing the thing -- actually writing and putting faith in the process of constant revision*).

Probably the reason why this advice is so often given to aspiring writers is because editors themselves are so often talking about it; I remember one editor enthusing about my manuscript BLOODANGEL to my agent in an email "...she has a great voice..."

'Voice' seems to be that writerly equivalent of 'star power' or 'the X factor' or 'animal magnetism'; you can kind of explain and analyze it, except you can't because something about it is elusive, 'magical', except you know it when you see it (or read it). I also think editors want to drive home the point that storytelling isn't just about plot, or the right choice of detail, or a properly sympathetic character. Storytelling is about writing the way dance is about movement and painting is about color, materials and brushstrokes. Which seems like it would be so obvious you shouldn't have to say it. Right?

So maybe: 'voice' is technique when you've transcended technique, so that you don't see a dancer working through her choreography, you see a dancer expressing and interpreting that choreography. She's learned it so well she doesn't even have to think about it. She just dances, and her style and personality shine through.

If you read a lot -- and most aspiring writers don't read enough -- and write a lot, you can't help but find your voice, and you can do it without even thinking about it. Ultimately voice is also your personality, your mind, filtered through all the influences banging around your head until the whole mess synthesizes into something that is, for better or worse, your 'voice'....except then again, your natural 'voice' plays a role in choosing your 'influences' as much as vice-versa. (For example: my mind and personality are such that I like the play of language, I like poetry, I tend to think in semi-colons, and I'm a fast talker, so it makes sense that I would gravitate to writers like Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood or TC Boyle as my 'influences' rather than the minimalist style of someone like Carver. In other words, you can learn a lot about your voice, and what your voice wants to be, through who and what you find yourself reading in the first place.)

Voice isn't taught, it's cultivated. If you feed and water it, and then leave it alone, it will grow on its own, and bloom in the darkness.

Or something.


*And yes, this is the first time I'm referencing a post that turns out to be referencing me. The hunter is the hunted, the analyst is analyzed, the reader is also the read...
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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 30th, 2009 12:03 am (UTC)
Please do. I am flattered.
Aug. 30th, 2009 12:11 am (UTC)
Seconded - that's an extremely perceptive quote.

If I may continue your metaphor, the problem most (newer) writers have is that they try to harvest the voice before it blooms.

Finding it without thinking about it is a good aspect, too. If you write enough, one day, you realize you have a "voice". And it's a surprise that you can't see until it's already there.
Aug. 31st, 2009 12:46 am (UTC)
Reminds me of an interview with a guy who had something to do with the Sundance admissions committee. He said most films that get submitted were "made too soon" -- that the script needed a lot more work, more revisions, before the investment of all that time and money and energy.
Aug. 30th, 2009 05:18 am (UTC)
I think voice is just what you get when you finally synthesize everything and don't sound like anyone but yourself. Same thing in music -- it takes a lot of playing to develop your own style and sound -- and it not something consciously done, for the most part. If you listen to jazz a lot, or even rock, you can identify a great player almost instantly, within seconds, because no one else sounds like them. They have found their voice.

Now, whether that voice is intrinsically interesting is another matter.
Aug. 31st, 2009 12:47 am (UTC)
I like that, and I think it's true. You know you have a 'voice' when a reader can read a paragraph and instantly identify you.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

About Me

I'm the author of three published novels: the dark fantasies BLOODANGEL and LORD OF BONES (Roc/Penguin) and the YA supernatural thriller UNINVITED (MTV/Simon&Schuster). I also have stories in the MAMMOTH BOOK OF VAMPIRE ROMANCE 2 and ZOMBIES: ENCOUNTERS WITH THE HUNGRY DEAD. I'm working on a psychological thriller called THE DECADENTS. I am divorced, with sons, and live in Bel Air.

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