Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Finding a Voice

In the course of doing an interview, I started to think about the question of a writer's voice.

You know how when your cell phone rings and you don't look at the caller ID, you usually recognize the caller within a few words? That's because you know your family's and friends' voices. They're familiar and easily distinguishable.

The written voice is the same: a familiar way a writer has of putting words together into sentences, of turning a phrase, of addressing a subject. It's made up of diction and syntax and ties in closely with style.

There's a world of difference between the tight, short, punchy prose of Ernest Hemingway, who never met an emotive adjective he liked, and the discursive, rambling, associative writing of Thomas Wolfe. You'd never mistake one for the other.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a stickler for exactness. If he spoke of a jewel or a tree or a street, he'd name it: a topaz, a cottonwood, the Rue Lamartine. John Steinbeck was more of an impressionist. He'd write of a jewel glittering on a necklace, a stand of trees, or dusty streets - without naming a one of them.

Tolkien achieved a sense of history by the way his sentences often built toward the verb at the end. Onward his mighty armies of Men and Elves rushed. Len Deighton turns expectations inside out, arousing laughter or at least smiles from pawky puns: "Charlotte Street runs north from Oxford Street and there are few who will blame it." Raymond Chandler delights in edgy similes: "He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."

Part of maturing as a writer is finding your own voice, your own individual way of saying things. You can do it - you're the only one who can, in fact, because no one else has your way of looking at the world.

The chore is discovering the voice. Most of us begin by imitating writers we admire. Robert Louis Stevenson said that we all begin as "sedulous apes," learning the tricks of the trade from our betters and applying them.

However, in time you grow your voice. You do that by writing, revising, and rewriting until the prose you produce sounds right. When it sounds right to you, then it's in your voice.

And you've grown a bit as a writer.

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