by Wendy Visser
Voices, like people, come in all shapes and sizes, but what do we mean when we refer to a writer’s voice? Is it a technique, a gift, or a combination of technique and gift unique to each writer? I think when we speak of writers finding their voices, we mean they have developed a style or a way of speaking that flows through all their work, thus making the individual author’s voice identifiable. Is this a desirable trait and one that every writer should practice? Perhaps if voice is more gift than technique, then it is innate within the writer’s soul and not something that can be practiced.
Established writers asked to aid and abet would-be writers, unanimously offer three pieces of advice. First. Read. Read. Read. No argument there. Second. Write about what you know. On the whole that’s good advice. What we know and what we’ve experienced are safe territories, familiar surroundings, and our voice will have a ring of truth to it. It should sound natural. Personally, I like to tackle foreign subjects and topics beyond my experience. Research can be rewarding and the ability to empathize; to place yourself into someone else’s journey is not only challenging but stretches horizons and exercises those vocal muscles adding a new dimension to this thing called voice. Third. Find your voice and stick with it. I don’t believe you find your voice. It finds you.
Once it arrives at your doorstep, by destiny or design, do you rigidly follow it, letting it always take the lead until it is familiar, as comfortable as a lover’s hug and easily recognizable?
If you accept the ‘stick with it’ approach, then the answer to the above query would be a resounding yes. Shakespeare’s dry wit, double-entendres, mistaken identities, comedic flair, steeped within the history of kings and queens, courts and courtiers of a high-browed castled England, were all part and parcel (techniques) of Shakespeare’s voice; but the indefinable, mesmerizing part of his voice, that part which was gift was born to fit a stage. Staying true to what his hearing audiences expected, bore well for ‘Willy’ and his longevity speaks for itself.
There are times when the consistent voice of a particular writer resonates around and through each piece, so much so, that theme and voice become inseparable. In Wilfred Owen’s poems, lines march from one battle to the next and readers see the bugles and the drums of war through Owen’s anti-war voice. Pauline Johnson’s compelling voice speaks of native struggles against injustice within a non-native culture. Her background coupled with her presentation was applauded by both sides.
The raspy, romantic voice of Leonard Cohen, novelist and poet, combines the harshness of a world cynic with the soft cadences of physical intimacy. Edwin John Pratt’s narrative style of voice is well suited to the unpredictability of nature pitted against man’s ingenuity and courage, while Carl Sandburg’s voice of steel speaks for the underdog in an industrialized civilization. And Robert Frost’s quiet voice hovers above the solitude within the landscapes of rural America.
The voices of the above, in my opinion, are characteristic of outward techniques used in writing, but that phenomenon of voice, which I refer to as gift, is what makes them and their work unforgettable.
If a writer’s voice resists change, can it lead to predictability, even boredom? I suppose that possibility depends upon the individual writer. William Blake’s earlier work, for example, hinged on uncomplicated, and light lyrical poems which later evolved into darker poems more satirical in content. Changing one’s style or way of speaking has the potential for growth and the opportunity for improvement. Trying a different style may or may not work for you, but at least you will have tried a new approach, and it just might be fun.
See if changing your topic or your perspective changes your voice.
- If you always write in the first person, try second or third.
- If your work tends to be humorous, try writing a tragic piece.
- If you are always the narrator or spectator, be the participant.
- If you never write about nature, put yourself into a landscape.
- Try writing under a pseudonym.
There is a great deal to be said about the technique and the gift of writers’ voices, and I feel that I have only grazed the surface. However your writer’s voice comes into its own level of expertise, the design or technique part of voice must not sound forced or contrived but believable to readers and when your voice carries the potential to come alive; therein lays its destiny – its gift.
* Information about Cohen, Pratt, Sandburg, Frost and Blake was gathered from their bios contained in ‘An Anthology of Verse’ ed. by Charlesworth and Lee, published by Toronto Oxford University Press, 1964
Wendy Visser is a long time member of the Cambridge Writers Collective. She has recently released her second poetry collection, ‘This Side of Beyond’. Books are available through the publisher, Craigleigh Press, or from the author.