James Baldwin. Image credit: Mottke Weisman

In workshops and at festivals, aspiring writers have asked me: ‘How do I find my “voice”?’ The more I think about the idea of ‘voice’ in writing, the more complex it becomes. We use the word ‘voice’ in three distinct ways, when we talk about writing: the voice of a text; a writer’s voice; and being a voice for something (such as a generation). We often speak of the act of ‘finding’ one’s voice as the ultimate goal for an emerging writer, but once found can it also be lost? Can you develop creative laryngitis, or become unable to sing a note?

The voice of a text

When I’m reading submissions in my day job as a commissioning editor, it is quickly apparent to me whether a manuscript has a strong voice. The judgement seems instinctual; my colleagues and I know what is meant when one of us declares: ‘the voice is strong’. While what makes it strong is always to some degree intangible, there are some recurring elements that distinguish it.

The voice of a text is strong, for one, when it is written in the most impactful point of view for that particular text. For example, Lolita is written from the challenging first person point of view of Humbert Humbert and it’s hard to imagine it would have the same impact were it written any other way.

Secondly, a work with a strong voice is written in the tense that is most effective for that text. The present tense for all three characters in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours allows the reader to inhabit different eras, vividly experiencing the lives of these women.

Next, the text has an effective rhythm and pace, meaning that you are drawn into it, not snagging on any indicators of ‘effort’ left by the writer.

charlotte_bigFinally, the text has a writing style (down to the sentence level) that suits the subject matter and evokes the ‘mood’ of the text’s subject. The weighted and imagery-laden sentences of a gothic novel, like Jane Eyre, not only detail the physical world (‘clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating’) but also evoke dark psychological terrain.

How does a writer successfully align these elements? A lot of trial and error is involved, as well as much careful thought. There is also often a sense of knowingness on the part of the writer – which brings me to the second notion, a ‘writer’s voice’. This broader term indicates that a writer has accessed a pocket deep in their lungs, allowing a true and assured utterance to occur.

A writer’s voice

How is that pocket containing the writer’s true voice accessed? In my experience interviewing writers about this, the most common answers are: read (a lot) and write (a fucking lot). Read and write out of your comfort zone. And, often, re-read and revisit texts that have had a strong impact on you.

The vocal influences on my own writing extend across other, non-literary creative mediums, including film, music and visual art. The common threads between these influential texts are their concerns, and how these concerns are expressed through the text’s mode (its method or approach).

It’s a process of absorption, or perhaps vampirism: sucking the blood from the art you love.

When the writer figures out what their concerns are – a process that can be partly or even mostly unconscious – they must also find a way to adequately express them, as their favourite writers and artists have done. This means finding a suitable mode – a genre, form, style, structure, mood – which suits their concerns.

‘Concerns’ are a writer’s obsessions or fascinations: themes like death, secrets and love; settings or objects they are drawn to; even more abstract elements, like a particular colour. A writer may not know why ‘yellow’ or ‘hallways’ are a concern (these are two of mine), but this not-knowing is interrogated through the writing itself.

While some writers take many years to find their voice, due to constraints of time, money or responsibilities, for other writers the same constraints may actually help them find their voice: writing becomes a necessity, a way of rendering their cage in order to understand it better.

When a writer has not yet found their voice, it is evident in their writing – particularly when it has an uneven or erratic pace, so that the voice only comes through in snatches like a car radio in a dead zone; or when it has an overly earnest tone (a grasping at the concerns and a need to express them without having found the form, the ‘art’. The art inevitably requires some distance, to allow room for the reader to enter). Overt performativity is another giveaway, because the writer is still mimicking the form or style of others, without having gone deep enough into the lungs and matching their own concerns to an appropriate form.

It can take a long time for writer to ‘find’ their voice. Most published writers I’ve spoken to have either taken a very long time on their first book (like, nine years) or have written several manuscripts and discarded them before they could sing clearly and loud. James Baldwin says in his Paris Review interview: ‘I wrote four novels before I published one, before I’d even left America. I don’t know what happened to them.’ And then, of course, his incredible voice came through in books like Go Tell it On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room.

Maintaining voice means that a writer will continue to find a suitable mode as their concerns evolve, so a poet may become a novelist, a novelist a short fiction writer, a literary writer a genre one, a minimalist a maximalist. Or, the continual development of voice will be a more subtle process.

But can a writer’s voice also be lost?

A writer can become trapped by the ‘mode’ that previously worked for them, even though their concerns have evolved. If they’ve had too much professional success or too little, they may be overly influenced by feedback or reviews (instead of going back to that pocket of the lungs, to discover it anew). In both cases, the original voice can be lost, as can also happen when a writer is emotionally overwhelmed. Raw emotions can fill the top of the lungs and block access to that deeper well (think of the shallow breathing typical to anxiety). This goes for happiness, too, and the lovely bubble it creates, sitting high in the chest (think of previously debauched rock stars who’ve gotten sober and fallen in love, and subsequently released dreadful albums). Voice might also be lost if the writer becomes too infatuated or obsessed with one concern, which may cause a return to either earnestness or performativity, a need to express, without the ‘art’.

I’ll mention one other thing that can mean the voice is either never found or is sometimes lost: sheer desperation. Solid wanting can get in the way of the reading that is necessary to help to shape voice. If an aspiring writer reads with envy first and foremost, they will not be letting those texts seep in. They will not be finding their concerns. (Though perhaps when they find their mode for envy, they will do well.)

A lost writer can always find their way back, though.

Being a voice for, or of…

Karl Ove Knausgaard. Image credit: Thomas Wågström

The idea of a writer finding a mode for their concerns (as finding ‘voice’) leads me to consider the third notion of voice – where a writer articulates concerns shared by other members of the society or culture. Writers whose work makes a lasting impact are often those who harmonise. This happens often unknowingly. When the lungs are deeply accessed and a writer sings their truest note, they access not only their own psychology but the varying contexts of its creation. Only by going to this deep place within can they create a work that is simultaneously unique and harmonious with the voices of others. The writing process, James Baldwin said, ‘demands a certain amount of energy and courage (though I dislike using the word), and a certain amount of recklessness.’

Though his voice is deeply individual, Karl Ove Knausgaard expresses notions previously caught in the throats of everyday Norwegians, and people around the world. It took Knausgaard a lot to ‘go there’, foregoing therapy in order to put all of himself into his work (as he discussed at the 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival). Franz Kafka found a voice of suffering deep within himself, related to the struggle of daily work, conventions of relationships with others, and self-loathing. He then became a voice for much larger ideas of political oppression.

Many successful contemporary Australian writers are voices (often subtly) for ideas as broad as feminism, social inequality, mental suffering, the silence of history, oppressed peoples, the perils of capitalism, the plight of animals, and climate change. In each case, the writers exhibit unique and deeply personal voices. Christos Tsiolkas springs to mind, as does Ceridwen Dovey, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Krissy Kneen (the strongest sex-positive voice in Australian literature), A.S. Patrić (who has found his voice quite publicly, I think, and strengthens it with each book), and Nam Le (how will his have evolved when he finally releases his second book?).

In a meaningful text, these three notions of voice come together: the writer has found their concerns, and has, consciously or not, fixed on a mode in which to shape them. Then, there is a level of trust involved – the writer trusts that if they delve deeply enough (and artfully enough) into their own fascinations, they will find there the concerns of others.

A work of literature is strongest, then, when the writer has found their voice, has sustained a note for the length of a text, and through the integrity of this process has also managed to reach deep down into the chests of others, creating a harmonious song.