NOTE: Due to two unexpected requests on a short deadline for non fiction pieces, I have combined today’s and tomorrow’s NaNoWriMo post into one.
I have the hardest time defining “voice.”
I think of voice in two ways. I believe (you are welcome to disagree) that every writer has a fairly consistent internal voice in terms of intrinsics, regardless of whether any given story will appear the same. By this I don’t mean that every one of their stories will be told in the same style or with the same point of view inflection but rather that they will bring their perspective, their experience, their biases, the peculiar nature of their particular interests and how they focus on narrative , and subtle, specific similarities of rhythms and colors and filters to their work. This will hold true within the deepest levels of story even when the external voice, the point of view and style any specific story is told in, varies from piece to piece.
It’s a truism that writers must “find their voice” and to a fair degree I believe that to be true although I might phrase it differently. Each writer takes a different path to uncovering what’s at the heart of what they want to write about. For some, voice comes first before anything while others have to peel away competing layers of borrowed voices until they get to their own.
It is difficult if not impossible to tell other people’s stories by which I don’t mean that you can only write about your own direct life but that you can’t write the stories other people think you should write. I have had both relatives, writing teachers, and other folks KINDLY inform me that if only I would write this other stuff, this important stuff, then it would be the right thing to do: These brutally realistic tales of immigrants failing to succeed at farming on the Great Plains are REAL novels. Why are you wasting your talent on fantasy and sci-fi when you could be influenced by Hemingway? Instead of writing this novel the way you are proposing why don’t you write it in a way I think is more appropriate? Please write something I can read like something without magic or spaceships in it.
Even within the sff field I used to receive comments suggesting that if only I would write something different, something more worthy, more important, more to their critical taste; just not what I was writing.
Perhaps it never occurred to these people that it had nothing to do with me being “stubborn” or “not listening.” Perhaps it never occurred to them that the stories they wanted me to tell weren’t the stories I had to tell.
In my first NaNoWriMo post I mentioned my four writing observations, of which the third is:
Write what is in you to write.
The comment is not mine. I’m handing it on to you from Damon Knight.
I became acquainted with Damon Knight mostly on the late, lamented GEnie, an early internet forum that became a gathering place for many sff-related folks. Because he lived near my parents I ended up meeting him in person a couple of times although I can’t say I ever got to know him well. In addition to their writing careers, he and Kate Wilhelm taught a great deal (having founded the Clarion Writing Workshop) and took teaching (and thus mentoring) very seriously as a contribution to the future of the sff field.
One year while visiting my parents I went to Knight’s house to have tea. Although he could be acerbic in writing I always found him kind in person. After his years at Clarion he surely had become used to young writers asking endless questions about writing and confiding in him about their endless struggles.
That day I told him I was having doubts not about my writing specifically (I always struggle with those) but about WHAT I was writing. Should I be writing something else? Something that would be deemed more important or more worthy? Was there any point to writing the stories I was writing, I wondered? What if they didn’t matter? What if the people who wanted me to write something else were right, and I was just stubbornly writing trivial stories that anyone could see inhabited the most shallow pool of the narrative ocean?
He listened carefully. When I was done he said,
“We write what is in us to write.”
The words stopped me dead.
It’s not that they gave me permission but that they allowed me to stop asking for permission.
The statement made me realize I had to stop fighting the stories inside me. It didn’t matter if what I was writing was important or worthy by anyone else’s lights or measure. What mattered is that my voice is my voice, and my stories are my stories.
Someone will always be happy to tell you that you should be using your creative mind in a different way, one that fits with their prejudices, their tastes, their judgment.
But it’s not true. We write what is in us to write.
We do not in fact know who will read our stories. We don’t and can’t know who will be touched by them in a way that is consequential to them. Every writer I know has a story or ten of receiving a letter from or being directly told by a reader who thanks us in a profound way: “your story saved me,” “your character’s journey gave me hope,” “this novel brought me through a dark time,” “your words helped me see this aspect of myself in a different way” or even just “your story let me see myself.” Even a simple “your story kept me up late” or “I enjoyed it so much” or a heartfelt “your stories inspired me to write” is a mark of worth.
Our authentic voice is the gift we have to give to the world.