So lately I’ve been thinking about voice.Â When I was in school, studying up on the Great Art of Creative Writing, there was a lot of talk about “finding your voice.” No doubt there still is.
At the time, I thought that my voice was something I was going to have to make decisions about. I would have to decide whether to be formal or casual, brief or verbose, clean or crude. I would have to develop little literary tricks I would be known for. When I read Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, I naively assumed that her style of writing in second person was her voice. It wasn’t. It was just a device.
And since every combination of formal and casual, brief and verbose, clean and crude, device-y and not was already taken, this was a daunting prospect. How could I develop that “unique voice” new writers are always praised for?
Now that I’m an older writer, I think I’ve got the answer.Â And it’s that you don’t create your voice at all.Â Your voice is just you.Â Your style of humor.Â Your level of optimism.Â The details you notice about the world.Â The moral questions you keep returning to.
And you don’t have to do anything to find it but write enough material for it to appear. (Which, yeah, takes a while.)
But once it happens, it’s totally huge.Â Voice may be the most important, most engaging aspect of your work.Â The aspect people really relate to.Â The part that keeps them coming back.
This phenomenon may be more obvious on television.Â You come to Good Eats for the scientific approach to cooking, but you stay for Alton Brown.Â You come to The Daily Show for the news parodies, but you stay for Jon Stewart.Â You come to 30 Rock for the humor, but you stay for Tina Fey.
And it’s true in fiction, too.Â Come for the Egyptology, stay for Elizabeth Peters.Â Come for the tiger in a lifeboat, stay for Yann Martel.Â Whatever the hook is for your novel, whatever its angle, your voice is what people connect to.
Because at the end of the day, people are more interesting than angles.Â We’re more interesting than hooks.Â Each of us is more interesting, believe it or not, than a tiger in a lifeboat.
Here’s a fairly voice-y snippet from the first chapter of my novel:
You shouldnâ€™t be here, said Aunt Aâ€™s voice in my head.Â Just turn right back around and head home.Â Donâ€™t even leave the train station.Â This place has nothing you need.
But I knew she was wrong.Â I knew where to look for comfort and security, if I wanted itâ€”for familiarity and peace and a sober kind of joy.Â That was all behind me, back in Iowa, in the arms of the aunts and in the little town where Iâ€™d grown up.
Those things made me happy enough, but they left me hungry inside.Â The things I needed were ahead of me:Â adventure, excitement, unpredictability.Â A life different from the one all my aunts had planned out for me.Â A purpose of my own, a big oneâ€”though I wasnâ€™t yet quite sure what that purpose would be.
If my novel is published, you may read it for the plot, or the setting, or the relationships between the characters.Â But if you come back and read the sequel, it will probably be, at least to some extent, because you like the place this text is coming from.Â It’ll be, basically, and as weird as this sounds… because you like me.
(Becky, this is everything I was trying so clumsily to say when we discussed your blog’s voice the other night.Â People come for the suburban drama; they stay for you.)