(My darlin’ Braylie told me once that she enjoyed reading my journals on-line, but wondered how I had “found my voice” as a writer. This journal is my humble attempt to explain that, and for asking, it is dedicated to her. I honestly don’t know that my writing is any good, but I have had a lot of practice at it, and have been asked by a variety of people to write what I would consider important items, so here goes…) [I tried to prioritize, but it proved impossible – these are in no particular order.]
* I think it’s really important to read a lot, and a lot of different things. As early as Elementary School, I was always very proud of my certificates for reading the most books. If you were to stop by my house and look at my library even now, you would find quite a wide variety of types of books in something approaching 5000 volumes. I have to admit to being pretty pleased with myself for organizing my books better when I moved them to my Morgantown house. I have a Classics shelf, and ones for History of various types, Baseball (of course), Mysteries, Science and Mathematics, Philosophy and Religion – probably 20 different genres in all. By reading a wide variety of books, one gets a broader view of the world. There are many different ways to look at what happens in our universe, and the more viewpoints you see, the more viewpoints you can see.
Among those books are also a large number of “word” books. I have always been fascinated with the way authors utilize the words at their disposal. Realistically, our vocabulary is limited to a finite number of regularly-used words, but good writers find a way to add greater meaning to the words they use by finding unique implications in them. Willard Espy for instance, in Words At Play, shows the kinds of gymnastics a good writer can make his words engage in. Ogden Nash shows that it’s acceptable to invent words when your dictionary just doesn’t seem to have the perfect choice. I have always said that I am a “connotation” kind of guy, not a “denotation” kind of guy. Words are more important to me for how they make me feel than for their exact meaning. This is a pretty important distinction when dealing with a complex topic, and it’s the source of never-ending aggravation for my students, when they ask me a complicated question. [e.g. ‘Do you believe in God?’… “That depends on what you mean by ‘God’.”]
One of the most exciting things to me about reading is seeing the way different authors have approached the same subject. Human beings all encounter some of the same situations throughout their lives (love, hate, tragedy, aging etc.), but face those trials in a multitude of different ways. Good writers show us many possibilities for dealing with such things, and I think that is very helpful in finding one’s own voice. “How would I deal with that situation?” “What would I think or feel under those circumstances?” By asking ourselves such questions, we begin to realize that our voice is somewhat different from that of others, and we can begin to sharpen our ability to express ourselves in our own unique way.
* Consequently, I also think it is important to write a lot, and in wide variety. In my life, I have engaged in quite a few different writing styles, and value what I have learned from each of them. From writing assignments in school to case notes to evaluative reports to public speeches to lesson plans to historical analyses to song lyrics to letters of recommendation, the types of writing I have had to do each have their own paradigms, language, and vocabulary, which have eventually contributed to the amalgam that is my voice. Even years after I have written in some of these styles, elements of them invade my work, usually in a useful way.
I think it is also useful to write parodies of any particular style that you might have to use. Doing so helps you to see some of the pitfalls and sillinesses that any particular style might have. Though I will admit that I would have a very difficult time writing a parody of my own personal style, I can easily parody song lyrics, government documents, and other items that I have had to write frequently in my lifetime. (I will admit, however, that most of my supervisors in State government offices didn’t relish my parodies very much.)
* Build as large a vocabulary as you can. The only way to know whether certain words feel right to you is to use them enough times to develop a sense of ownership (or rejection). At a very early age, I enjoyed working the crossword puzzles in the newspaper. What I found most fascinating about them was the multitude of implications the puzzle constructors could find in a word. The clues given for a particular word never were the same, but always seemed to make sense once you figured the puzzle out. Whether a word was being used as a noun or a verb changed it completely. (The word “name” for instance, could mean any of the following: designation, label, handle, VIP, luminary, reputation, renown, identify, cite, christen, dub, or call among other things, and each of those terms has a variety of applications.)
I was fortunate to have Grace Marie Merrill as my Sophomore English teacher in high school. She insisted that we keep a little notebook just for the 20 words she gave us each week to learn. (“Loquacious” was one of those words, if you get the inside joke.) Because I did what I was supposed to, and because I wanted to please Mrs. Merrill, I learned all those words religiously and still remember most of them today. Many of those words (like “lugubrious”) are generally in my vocabularic dustbin, but I trot them out once in awhile when the feeling is just right. (…as the word “awhile” is in the previous sentence, even though Word’s squiggly blue line tells me it’s passé now.)
In a classroom discussion one of my students once revealed a great strategy his mom had when reading a book. As she would read, she would encounter words that she did not know. Rather than skim over or ignore them, she would underline them, look them up in the dictionary, and write the definition in the margin of her book. Slowly but surely, she built up a useful vocabulary that was beneficial to her in many ways. Of course, this strategy only works if you at least occasionally read books that are challenging to your literacy. (More related to that anon...)
* Register in your mind what you sound like when you are talking with others. Most of us converse with other people while lots of nonproductive thinking is going on inside our heads. We plan out our day, consider our shopping list, and engage in other mundane thoughts without really considering what we are saying or how we are saying it. (Half of you just thought, “I always do that!”, while the other half of you thought, “I never do that!”) Next time you are carrying on a conversation, put a little effort into listening to how you sound to the other person. It will have two positive results: you will have a better idea of what your true voice sounds like, and you will stop using words and phrases that might be perceived as offensive to other people. (My friend Ron used to end a conversation with, “Talk at you later”, which was intended to be a funny turn of phrase. It worked pretty well for him, but my wife picked it up and can’t put it down. From her it frequently sounds dismissive, though I am sure she has never considered that.)
I also consider it perfectly acceptable to talk to yourself. When you are driving in a car alone or on an exercise run, try talking out important ideas. It always seems to help me clarify my ideas and improve the way I wish to express myself. Talking aloud is different in some ways than writing, so you should learn to hear the differences. I always finish a written work by reading it aloud, often changing it to sound better in that form. I think that gives it a more personal voice. (That’s partly why I use so many commas in my work, causing Word to give me lots of green squiggles. I frequently pause for effect when speaking, and sometimes to allow time for thought or questions, so commas in my writing are there for the same reason. Poo on Word. Fortunately, it’s not programmed to be irritated by my underlines, dashes, ellipses, or italics, though it’s very concerned about my invented words.)
Similarly, it’s a good idea to “write” a lot in your mind before you ever put it down on paper. For letters of recommendation particularly, I use this strategy every time. In free moments, I ask myself, “What do I know about this person, and how do I want to impress on someone else the love/respect/admiration I have for them?” By the time I get around to actually writing the letter, it almost writes itself, because thinking about it has assembled all the parts already. Ironically, I use the same opening almost all the time, so every letter feels to me as though it begins like every other letter, then transforms into a personal essay when I begin to talk about the individual who only I know in that way.
* Though I have never been able to consistently follow the advice myself, keeping a writer’s notebook is an excellent idea. Have one section for good ideas as they come to you (including unique descriptions or topics that interest you), and keep track of interesting imagery, plot twists, and word usage that you encounter in your reading. I do have a notebook filled with one-line ideas for journals, stories, and even books that I might write someday. I don’t like to be derivative, so I seldom write down other peoples’ clever phrasing, preferring to rely on my creative juices to help me out at critical times. It’s very possible that critics would say that my writing suffers from this, and though they may be right, I don’t really care. Regardless, this is why one must not fall into the habit of reading only certain types of books. When the only things we read fall into one particular genre, it will be nearly impossible for us to grow the power of our own voice.
I write mostly to express myself, to clarify my thinking, or to leave a legacy for students and family. I would be quite happy to be considered a good writer by some objective criteria, but it’s not essential to my personal satisfaction, which is a characteristic that I also think helps a person find their own voice. Most great authors (not that I am one) wrote in their own voice, whether it was critically praised or not. The variety of our literature would suffer greatly if authors only wrote what critics liked. We would likely have missed out on Joyce, Vonnegut, Thurber, Twain, and many others had they chosen to look for a common voice rather than sticking to their own.
* One of the oldest clichés in writing is, “Write what you know.” To me, this might be the ultimate aid to finding your voice. Only you have experienced certain events in life. Only you can describe them in a personal and unique way. My Psychology students always hear my story from my mother’s funeral about the guy who came up to me and said, “I know exactly how you feel.” He obviously had no clue about the absurdity of that statement, but it made me quite angry anyway. No matter what his experience was with his mother’s passing, it really could not in any sensible way compare with what I was experiencing, and I should have told him so, but I wouldn’t have been able to explain it to him civilly. Once again, that which makes for great variety in writing is, at heart, our variety in experiencing life. Only you can know certain things in certain ways, so express them in the way that is most meaningful to you. That will be your voice.
This leads to another old cliché, “Know thyself.” In order to speak clearly in your own voice, you must know who you truly are. I realize that this can be difficult for many young people. What do you do when you are still in the middle of growing into your true self? The answer is, “Write now, read it later, and then write again.” I usually hate to read things that I have written long ago, but it certainly is instructive. I can see my growth in some areas, which makes me feel good. I can also be alerted to regression in other areas. Most importantly, I can see change, which occurs daily in such a subtle fashion that I might not otherwise notice it. Many people are not comfortable digging down deeply into their psyche, looking for motivations or flaws, but I have learned to embrace the practice. I am okay with being flawed, because I have earned my flaws through a lifetime of experiences. I don’t want to make my mistakes over again, but I have learned from most of them, and am a better person as a result. Knowing ourselves allows us to grow and to change, both of which are necessary to our truest voice.
* In an old joke, a wayward motorist driving down the streets of Manhattan leans out his window and asks a pedestrian, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The helpful guy replies, “Practice, practice, practice!” The same can be said to the aspiring writer. The more you write in your own voice, the clearer that voice becomes to you. As I mentioned above, that voice will change over time and depending on your purpose, but certain elements will always remain. It only becomes stronger with practice. Try writing a variety of different things. This may help you find that you have a voice that is strong in some areas while less so in other areas. Having knowledge of this can help you improve upon your weaknesses, and rely on your strengths when necessary.
* Always review and edit your work with that preeminent question in mind, “Is this how I want to sound?” If the end result “sounds” like you, it probably is you, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. I will admit that some of my writing sounds to me exactly like the me who wrote the 7th grade essay, “Looking Out My Window”. My mother saved that paper, which I completely forgot until well after she died and I found it in her desk drawer. In some ways, I wish my voice had changed more over the years, but in other ways I am pleased to have retained some of the innocence and simplicity that are reflected in it.
* Finally – have patience. Voice, like wisdom, does not manifest itself in a magical burst of insight. It is a slow-developing process that takes plenty of time and chooses many different forms before it becomes fully self-reflective. It is perfectly acceptable to have one voice at 20 and a very different one at 30. In fact, I would say that your life had been quite boring if you remained exactly the same for over a decade. Perhaps this explains the literary disappearance of some authors, whose voice never changed until they simply didn’t matter anymore. Your ability to portray genuine teenage angst at 18 might actually be a powerful tool. If you are still mired in that angst 10 years later, your voice has probably fallen silent, and no one is listening to you.
The fact that you are curious – searching for that elusive voice, is the most likely indication that you will eventually find it. We can only ever locate that for which we are searching. Keep searching.