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Voice is the soul of writing

September 24, 2010

“Call me Ishmael.  Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

“It was love at first sight.  The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”

Jane Austen writing. Photo: S.Z. Lea

You know all these, not only because they are engaging opening lines to wonderful novels, but because of the strength of their authors’ voices.  The voices embody their stories’ characters.  You can see Herman Melville, by the fireside surrounded by eager grandchildren, and hear the crustiness in his voice over the sea gale gathering outside the door, as he begins his tale of Moby Dick.  You can see Jane Austen, prim and straight at her quiet desk, quill poised above her parchment, smiling wryly and shaking her head a little, as she begins Pride and Prejudice.  And you can almost smell Joseph Heller, cramped over his typewriter, fingers flying, now grinning, now grunting, occasionally stopping to pull his messy hair or yell for coffee, as he ploughs through Catch 22.

These novels have interesting plots and characters, strange twists and satisfying endings, but what makes them great is the voice in which they’re written.

A strong voice is the common thread through every piece of writing – story, non-fiction, poem – that is destined for greatness.  But what is it?

I think the voice is the writing’s soul.

Writing is a way of communing between human beings, like talking or kissing.  Communion works if it’s soul to soul. So, for readers, writing works if they can recognize and feel the human soul in the words.  I’m not just talking about recognizing characters in the story as real.  It’s the soul and character of the whole work that lifts it from the page to soar in your imagination.

For a long time, I felt that I hadn’t found my voice as a writer. I enjoyed writing; I thought I was competent and could come up with not unoriginal plots and characters that made sense, but I knew it wasn’t vivid enough.  I tried to copy the styles of writers with strong voices, but I felt like I was in drag.  When I went to writers’ workshops, I’d ask, how do you find your voice?  No one told me.  I’d hear, oh, it’s just experience, and it can take years.

One day, sitting in bed, doing my morning writing exercise, I found it!

Before then, I thought of writing as my preferred career, but I thought of it as a choice too.  Now, I know I have to do it; it’s a calling.  I may never be thought of as a great writer, but I don’t care about that.  That’s not what motivates me at all.  Writing is my way of creating and revealing myself, my way of growing.

So, this is how it happened…

I was in the middle of a draft of a novel for 12 year olds.  It was going okay.  I had noticed something happening between two of my characters.  Sexual tension.  I couldn’t have that in my novel for 12 year olds, so I tried to eradicate it.  Little scenes and bits of dialogue and even strange (to me) descriptive terms kept floating into my brain, though.  I recognized them as the real me: the sort of story I would write and the language I would write it in if I could tell it to myself in my head, or write it in a lockable diary.  I wasn’t ashamed of that voice, it was just very personal.

The day before that morning, I had been reading Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down The Bones.  She says you have to write from the heart.  So, on that morning, I thought, stuff it, that’s what I’m going to do, just to see how it goes.  I rewrote one of the scenes of my novel letting the ‘real me’ have full rein; in other words, spontaneously.  This meant the characters were different, the way they spoke was different, the action was different, and the way I described everything was different, including my language and tone.  I wrote about 300 words, and then read them in disbelief.  There I was, visible in my writing, for the first time.  I’d let my imagination rule for once.  Instead of it being any old writer’s description of the scene, it was my scene.  If you read it and knew me well, you’d go, yep, that’s Fran, no one else could write that.

Now I write like that most of the time.  When I write that way, the scene in my head goes uncensored to the page with all my feelings, knowledge and ideas about it intact. When I don’t write that way, I feel blocked.  I read over it, and think, yeah, that’s flat, you weren’t really in there, your mind was somewhere else, do it again with feeling.

You don’t need years of experience (now I sound like an ad for 7 minute abs), you just need to have the guts to run with your imagination.

Practice helps too, of course.

This is what I’ve learned about finding your voice:

  1. Write what you really want to write. Write about what you care about, deep down, whatever you think anyone else might think about it.  Don’t listen to anyone else’s prejudice, including your own.  That little voice that says, it’s been done before, it sounds juvenile, no one will buy it, I couldn’t possibly do the research –it’s not your voice and it’s wrong.  Unless you write with love, you don’t have a chance.
  2. Write about it truthfully. Be honest in your writing.  Say what you really mean, in words that come closest to the truth.  If you went to the snow and just felt cold and wanted a cigarette, then write about that, instead of talking about the ‘crystalline brilliance on the window sill’.  It’s hardest to be truthful when you think it will be unacceptable to others or when it’s difficult to work out what you really believe.  That will probably be when you do your best and most original work.
  3. Write spontaneously. Don’t censor your feelings, your thoughts, your knowledge or your language.  Don’t worry too much about grammar or spelling either; you can always go back and edit.  So what if ‘squeamy’ isn’t a word?  Jack Kerouac said, don’t worry about the right words, just try to see the picture more clearly.  In The Bone People (a Booker prize winner), Keri Hulme thanked her editors for allowing her to keep her own quirkiness in the text, like ‘bluegreen’ because it had the right feel instead of ‘blue-green’.
  4. Write for yourself. Write the book or article or poem that you want to read.  Be your first audience, the one who has to be best pleased, even if you’re writing a kids’ story.  Thrill yourself, shock yourself, make yourself laugh, cry, and be rapt in the ending.  Go with your own humour and tastes, not someone else’s.  If you write to your heart, you’ll be able to write from it.
  5. Read and learn from writers with strong voices. This is Peter Carey inhabiting Ned Kelly in True History of the Kelly Gang:  ‘I did not wish Aaron Sherritt’s death though he were a traitor he would of seen me hanged as soon as look at me.  For Joe Byrne it were a different matter the root were deep & violent I cd. no more touch it than his beating heart.’  I’ve read a lot about Ned Kelly, seen his armour and the bullets, but nowhere is he more real to me than in Carey’s fiction.  You don’t have to copy those writers, just learn what it takes.

A useful exercise

An exercise I practice regularly is one of Natalie Goldberg’s.  You set yourself a time limit for writing, say 10 minutes or an hour.  You write for that time without stopping or even lifting your pen from the page.  You don’t worry about the right words, you just write.  The longer you go, the deeper you get into your own original mind.  Julia Cameron’s ‘morning pages’ exercise, from The Artist’s Way, is similar.  Every morning, you write 3 pages without stopping and without consciously thinking what to write first.  In a way, it’s like meditation: frees the mind.  Certainly frees the pen.

If you’d like to read my YA novel where I discovered my voice and let the sexual tension rip, here it is: Wombat Blues

(This post is based on an article I wrote a while ago, and I think I got the original idea from someone else.  Can’t remember – if you find anything similar, please tell me.  Anyway, I’m going to follow up on voice in the next post, looking at a couple of short stories that have it in spades. How do you get it? How does it work? Why does it work? Stay tuned, and in the meantime if you think of any other great examples of a writer’s voice, I’d love to hear from you.)

Photo: S.Z. Lea

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2010 6:51 am


    I have read many novels where opening sentence have capture my attention and some of the great writers keeps that intrigues and reader’s attention throughout the novel.

    One of best way be a writer is a to be a good reader, reading sure has helped my vocabulary to be better. I agree with you tips, when we are honest about ourselves. Great read.

  2. Tricia Bertram permalink
    September 25, 2010 7:28 am

    Great post Fran. The final five points bleed within me, it truly is the only way.

  3. September 27, 2010 12:45 am

    Hi Preeti,
    Yes, you’re right about being a good reader. Stephen King said there are two things you need to do to become a good writer – write a lot and read a lot.

  4. September 27, 2010 12:46 am

    Hi Tricia,
    And you are one of the writers who has taught me most about those 5 principles.
    Thanks, Fran

  5. October 8, 2010 4:07 pm

    I recently tried to copy the voice of another author (as an exercise), to write a story that sounded like hers. It’s actually quite hard, but looking at the mechanics of what makes that author’s voice distinct is an interesting exercise. I think, however, that you’re right–finding your own voice just takes writing lots and being true to yourself and to what you want to write. I’ve always written better (even when writing just academic papers for university) when I’ve written about something I’m passionate about.

    • October 9, 2010 7:01 am

      Hi and thanks for visiting! I do also think it’s enlightening to examine the mechanics of a story’s voice – to parse it closely to see why it works. I’m doing that right now with a couple of stories I’ve just read, and I’m going to write about it in my next post. There are general lessons to be had, but – yes – you’re never going to write exactly like someone else. And why would you want to? It would come across as parody or worse.

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