One of the earliest pieces of advice I heard as an aspiring writer was: find your voice. The call was everywhere: at conferences, in classes and in the pages of how-to books. But I always found the concept hard to grasp. I simply didn’t know where to find ‘my voice’.
It’s not that I couldn’t recognise how different writers wrote. I knew that Jack Kerouac for example, wrote very differently to Evelyn Waugh. So I looked for my voice in the work of other writers, I wanted to find one that I liked and could use comfortably. I tried to unpack each writer’s prose: I figured it was a game of sentence structure and grammar that might be worked into my own writing. Yet I failed to find a ‘voice’ I could emulate. I eventually gave up, believing that my education and commitment were at fault. Instead I acted on the other popular mantra: just write.
At the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival I saw Pico Iyer at an In Conversation session. He was warm and gentlemanly, polite yet fresh, and full of observations and ideas. He spoke of worldly travels, but his charming lilt gave a hint of English dales, cobbled streets and the grand buildings of his Oxford/Eton/Harvard education. This same voice spoke at the Radio Hour, reading a story about Cuba.
When Iyer left Melbourne I presumed I wouldn’t hear that voice again. But then I picked up a copy of his book The Lady and the Monk and began reading. There it was – that very same voice – in the pages of a story he wrote 25 years earlier. It meant something to me to see – to hear – this voice. There was honesty to it. It was clear that while Iyer worked on the clarity of his words, his ideas, imagery, pacing and themes, he still wrote in a way that was true to him. I could see the same flow of words and thoughts in the 25-year-old book as I had seen in his conversation. I began to understand why I had been told to ‘find’ my voice rather than ‘create’ it.
Last year Kevin Porter edited Sorkinisms – A supercut. It’s a montage of scenes from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (largely from the West Wing, Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). The montage highlights words and phrases Sorkin often uses. For some, I suppose, it was an exercise in repetition and (possibly) sloppy writing. But for me, it was another step in my understanding of voice. That a writer the calibre of Sorkin doesn’t deny himself his favourite words or phrases is significant. It means it might be OK for me to do that too.
There are occasional demands made in the zeitgeist by harbingers of literary taste compelling writers to avoid particular words. Just a month ago the Washington Post Outlook section released a list of taboo words and phrases. These are not offensive words, just those that (in the opinion of the authors) have become far too popular.
It’s the kind of list that previously stopped me in my writing tracks. Embarrassed I’d note all the words and phrases I’ve used. Now I read these lists with more cynicism. By writing regularly I realise that my writing voice is what it is. I can’t change the essence of my approach anymore than Pico Iyer or Aaron Sorkin can. If one of those taboo words or phrases is the most comfortable, most appropriate for my article then I might use it. And isn’t our voice a part of a conversation? In The Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg demonstrates our constantly evolving language. When words and phrases capture the popular imagination it’s just part that cultural process. (Plus, even the Washington Post Outlook’s editor admits that it’s impossible to eliminate these phrases).
Now that I recognise voice is not a literary construct so much as what an individual brings to their work, I see it in other forms. Consider the ‘voice’ in this video of scenes highlighting Stanley Kubrick’s interest in one-point perspective. Remember the work of Pablo Picasso, whose voice is present in his blue period and cubist work. The architecture of artist, Friedenreich Hundertwasser is unmistakable, no matter where it’s located. Each of these creators has been true to their voice.
‘Voice is the personality of the writer as it emerges on the page,’ writes Jack Hart in Storycraft. I’m still finding my voice, but as elusive as it is, I think I know where to hear it: it’s in the pages of my work, not worked into my pages.
Pepi Ronalds is a Killings columnist. She has been published in Meanjin, Open Manifesto, A List Apart and more. Her blog, Future of Long Form was an Emerging Blog for the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival. She’s on Twitter and Facebook, and has a website: pepironalds.com.