Don’t Waste Your Time Trying to “Find” Your Voice. Create it.

Note: Many of my clients (writers, freelancers, web-reneurs, entrepreneurs) and workshop participants struggle with this thing called “voice.” We all do. It’s elusive.

Professional writer or not, you likely rely on words to cast a portrait of who you are to the world. Behind the design and logo, behind the cover and title, a string of letters performs your fancy dancing for you.

Somehow a voice emerges that people recognize as yours. Or it doesn’t.

That fact paralyzes some otherwise brilliant web-preneurs. Even if they can write a decent sentence and sustain a train of thought for 500 words without their writing derailing, they’re still mystified by that fleeting and strange thing we call “voice.”

Voice charges written words with personality and verve, or with reservation and gravitas. It is a writer’s near-invisible signature on a page like a watermark. But if you hold a novel’s page up to the light, you still won’t find the secret traces of a writer’s voice.

So, how do writers and web-preneurs and creatives who rely upon words create distinct and authentic voices? Since writers can’t whisper directly on the page like Marlene Dietrich or belt like Ani di Franco, how do we sound “natural” with the written word?

These three principles will get us started.

#1: Stop hiding your best self.
Some clients tell me, “I don’t want my voice to get in the way of the message. I want to be invisible.” I get this. Some novice writers and web-preneurs do get carried away with fancy winged metaphors. Or they think that salting in words like “bad-ass,” “awesome,” and “ass-kickin'” equals voice.  But the other extreme – “invisibility” – stems from an old business face.

Your people – whether readers or customers – want intimacy from a business or from a memoirist. They don’t want to be pals or have a beer with their consultants and freelancers. But they do want to know there is a human being with personal desires in that business or book. That personable voice distinguishes you from an impersonal corporate front or from a data-wonk.

Your writing voice can offer your tribe a human being. Not a professionalized automaton well-steeped in business-ese or an academic stifled by what one writing teacher calls “Engfish,” that smelly obscure language we learn in college.

Note: Contrast the voice in creativity speaker Sir Ken Robinson’s first book Out of Our Minds with the voice in his new book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. In the first book, Robinson offers great information and ideas, but the stifled voice gets in the way. The Element offers even more great ideas and stories, and Robinson creates a clear, personable voice to carry them. (Robinson, by the way, gives generous acknowledgment to his editor at HarperCollins.) Most people haven’t heard of Out of Our Minds. The Element is a best-seller.

#2: Be influenced. You’re not original. Alone.
“I don’t want to be influenced by anyone,” some aspiring writers tell me. “I want to be original and write in my unique voice.”

Aspiring web-preneurs who rely upon words but are unwilling to study the craft of writing – or hire an exceptional copywriter – might set themselves up for disaster, disappointment, or just embarrassment. (Aspiring writers who refuse to read other writers in the name of originality…well, do they deserve to be read?)

Your creativity doesn’t come only from your mind’s special chemistry set.

A whole new field of social psychology as well as the work of Steven Johnson (Where Ideas Come From) and that of Frans Johannson (The Medici Effect) corroborate the fact that most great “ideas” come out of collaboration, combination, and influence. Synthesis more than insight is the heart of creativity.

So, choose your influences. Otherwise, they’ll choose you, and your “originality” will be unconscious voice theft. (More on that in a later post.)

#3: Create your voice. Don’t try to “find” it.
“Find your true voice!” That’s the mantra of some writing classes and workshops. I get the sentiment. But it’s misleading. A true voice is not found. It’s created. The former is passive & stagnant; the latter, active & dynamic.

And most artists don’t have just one true voice. They’re not schizophrenic. They’re versatile. Like Daniel Day Lewis or David Bowie or Kate Moss, they can draw upon many personas and many voices – as the occasion, the impulse, and the latest transformation demands. Writers who flourish don’t let one voice ensnare them into one way of creating.

In a future article, we’ll take up how you can “create” a voice that both sounds right and true as well as works for your project – whether that project is your business, a creative project, a personal essay, a memoir, a blog, or your business’s collateral.

Drop in the Hut:
How have you created your writing voice, the voice of your business or books, your songs or poems? When can you tell if you’re writing in your voice (or one of your voices) or just trying on another mask? Share your comments and stories here.

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  1. “A true voice is not found. It’s created.”

    I kinda like this … and I kinda don’t agree, or rather want to interject a question here.

    I know the whole “find” thing does get way too passive, not just with voice but our entire life. Making/choosing can sometimes be much more powerful & more accurate a representation of how things “come true” rather than remain dreams.

    On the other hand, w/writing specifically, I am deeply intrigued by Peter Elbow’s notion of “writing with power” and of “authentic voice” as something that emerges once you write past not only received cliches but your own private cliches. And a similar approach is emphasized by Carol Bly in her books on short-story writing & creative nonfiction. And then also there’s Chip Delaney in his book of collected essays about writing, talking about “the annealing moment of doubt” in which he pushes deeper by rejecting the initial words & thus making more words to come.

    I know you’re a big fan of the creative unconscious too … so how do you integrate this interesting point you make here about “creating a voice” with the aspects of pushing past cliche & connecting with writing we don’t even know we have yet? Which comes when? Or does it matter?

    (P.S. Someday I am going to try teaching Elbow’s technique of having workshop writers crank a zillion pages a week to flood and overwhelm conscious control until it gives up and the naked power of unconscious emerges. Curious as to what will happen.)

    1. Randy: Thanks for this thoughtful response. My dictum “A true voice is not found. It’s created” obviously stems from a few pre-conceptions with which I disagree and think ultimately can be harmful. The idea that I have to “find” my voice creates the illusory notion that my voice is somewhere else, that it is in fact “anywhere” besides here, and that I only have one to find. That’s bologna. Elbow et al are helpful up to a point. Elbow’s idea of an “authentic voice” is helpful if it helps aspiring writers get past the convoluted posturing that happens especially when aspiring writers go to college. They start writing what one writing teacher called “Engfish,” that smelly posturing voice that emerges when someone is trying to “sound” official and important. Lord knows I spent much of twenties trying to purge a Heideggerian-laden voice out of my writing, and some MFA students with whom I work still need to fry their Engfish voices and serve them up for old times.

      I also advocate slow writing. I want writers to hear rhythms and nuances and associations in the margins of their awareness AS they’re writing. Blasting through pages of writing is extremely useful for some writers with no experience outside of ‘performative’ writing (student writing, report writing). But there are other ways for other writers and aspiring writers.

      But once an aspiring writer, blogger, or entrepreneur has mastered the “conversational voice,” the chummy conversational tone that essayists have crafted since the early 1800s, I want to give them permission to try more. If writers stop at the “conversational junction” as having “found” their authentic voice, then they’re missing out on a whole range of options. Hence, the “create” part and the conscious outset of emulation – and emulation of voices that often may not sound conversational at all. You know, what would happen if bloggers and enterprisers started emulating Mallarme?

      The creative unconscious is a tricky term, too. One assumes that in order to “access” it we need to trip up the frontal cortex and just blast past it in free writing or speed writing. Yes and no. There’s mounds of evidence and anecdotes and my own experiences with myself and other writers and artists that suggest that the unconscious can be PRIMED. An “authentic voice” does not come out of nothing. At least an interesting one for my time and money.

      Take O’Keeffe – a primo wonder tracker. She went to West Texas for a job. To salvage something of her dream to be an artist amidst family turbulence and a society that was unwelcoming of a serious woman artist. West Texas? She had been trained at some of the finest art schools in the US. And around that time, 1915, she writes her best friend to say that she’s going to forget everything she’s been taught. Well, I would say she forgot it consciously. That is, she consciously stopped trying to imitate and emulate. Now it was time to incubate and assimilate and ultimately innovate. And she did so. The charcoal drawings that came out of her time in West Texas were unheralded, and when her best friend showed them to A Stieglitz back in NYC, well, the rest is history.

      The take-away: O’Keeffe primed her unconscious. And she didn’t “find” her vision. She absorbed what preceded her, she absorbed some of the latest theories of emotion & line & color, and then she took off on her own path. And she worked. Day in, day out. And then she became versatile. Her vision grew and changed over time.

      Pushing past cliche: To me, this has everything to do with consciousness (and consciousness includes the intersection of the conscious mind’s 5% being influenced by the unconscious’s 95%). That’s why during the next week in Taos, I’ll be taking writers and others through a series of experiences to push into surprise, into confusion & ambiguity & paradox, and into re-seeing the ordinary world of things around them and mustering language and image that, yes, they didn’t know they had in them. We’re accessing a part of the conscious mind I’ve described elsewhere as the felt mind – that place where we can feel the textures of words, of images as we write them – and rather than follow a word’s referent we might follow in the next sentence a word’s connotation, a personal association, a strange combination of sound-clatters. I teach them these things rather consciously so they can assimilate them, let their neurons create some new pathways. (I applaud Delaney’s take, by the way.)

      And then you know my take on the body and embodied cognition and embodied creativity. The adaptive unconscious is emotional and influenced largely by our autonomic system. The main way to consciously affect the autonomic system – heart beat, blood flow, etc. – is via altering our respiration. But you know that story and Yoga As Muse and the Body Electric as a way to get past cliche. 😉

      Hope that helps as a response. I’d love to hear more about how you’re working with your students at NYU. I’d be curious to hear their take on these matters, too.

  2. Massive response! Too much for me to handle right now as I have my hands full w/my little world of NYU students and my own self-education. As an adjunct you don’t get a lot of extra training – but then, I’m always surprised to find out how few teachers at the college level (adjunct or not) do get any training in teaching other than winging it on the job.

    Right now I’m plowing through A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers and finding the early chapters a disappointment – but maybe in the later chapters I’ll come across some new ideas similar to those you speak of.

    So I won’t be making it to Taos any time soon – but wishing you much enjoyment & good teaching/learning.

    1. Randy: I’ll try to think of some good resources for you. The lack of training and continued training is a travesty, I think, and so I commend you for furthering your own education in pedagogy. Stay in touch. – Jeffrey

  3. I think I have a strong sense of voice – but I am intrigued by the concept of using 3 voices (narrator, dramatist and muser) that you mentioned in our YCB handbook and whether or not I rely to heavily on only 1 of those voices. Although, honestly, I don’t know which one I rely on the most. I’ve had many people tell me over the years that I write like I speak – they feel like I’m in the room with them when they read whatever I’ve written. Good? Bad? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it’s authentic to who I am and that makes me feel like I’m on the right track or something. I love the idea of reading other books and being influenced by others. I love to read and there are times that I read and re-read a sentence because it is so GOOD. Whether it be the concept, or the style or the sheer beauty of the words strung together – it can be awe-inspiring to me to witness that. I aspire to be that kind of writer – not fancy, not perfect – but to imagine that someone, somewhere might read and then re-read something I’ve written because it has had some kind of impact on them… WOW.

  4. My favorite experience of reading a book where the author, the words and the story disappear and I become one with the book and forget that I am even reading. And yet without voice the author couldn’t pull me along with words and story, keeping me close like a dear friend. So as a reader voice is both there and invisible.

    As an author, I think voice happens or is created when I am clear about the audience, the story and who I am in the play of the book. The idea of creating versus finding voice is brilliant. It is a process of defining a context, structure, and topic or story that gives the opening for our voices to be expressed. And then of course we must speak or write while staying true to that voice.

    1. Agree wholeheartedly with Jane Lee Rankin’s comment! being clear about the audience is essential!

  5. As a business artist I am more tuned to how social media companies project their clients messages on blog posts and in case studies and white papers they post on websites. As these companies become accustomed to placing their trust in me, collaboration works when the social media companies understand I know my limitations and where they excel. I contribute more professional language and the tone for the target audience (show, don’t tell).

    It took me quite a while to be more authentic in my poetry. It was only by trusted poets and writers who asked me to tell them more and challenged me through exercises that I continually challenge myself to be authentic. I find myself laughing out loud reading “The Hurricane Sisters” as the author expresses herself that reflects my mind’s eye. I find myself very comfortable sitting at the table with the different family members – refreshing. I like a variety of genres but appreciate the craft in each or the book goes back to the library with pages unturned. Reading a short story that had so many human elements today has challenged my senses to write short piece that I pray is not business-oriented. I have enjoyed my vacation and questing.

  6. I’ve been blessed (?) with not having to create a voice, it’s just part of me. I can’t not use it. The trick is finding situations where I feel safe to let it rip, risk misunderstanding or even provoke. When I don’t feel safe (confident might be a better description), I either don’t express anything (worst case) or I do what you call “trying on a mask”. The masks never work (or at least I’m never satisfied with what they say) so I guess I just need to work toward saying anything at all because when I do, it will be in my voice.

  7. One of the best things I’ve been told about my book writing is, “I can hear YOU in your writing.”
    I write as though I am telling the story and I guess the ‘me’ comes out in it–didn’t know it until I was told this by a friend.
    I never want to sound like someone else or force the ‘me’ into something and it showed me I had accomplished this.

    1. I never wanted to sound like anybody else either. Until I met Professor and later Old Man in my first dreams; Professors voice so often came into my head after I’d written him that he became my fall back for my own voice on many occasions.

  8. “Finding your voice” … I would agree that finding your creative muse is the focus and then, the voice will follow! But for me, not bringing in the voice of characters from writers whose stories I admire is a challenge. I find I just have to keep writing and it comes, but Then I will have to go back and re-write the more authentic voice across the script!

  9. A previous thread of discussion said “knowing who your audience is” is essential to the voice one “finds” or uses. I so agree with that! I too love it when the voices ring so true that I forget I’m reading ( or listening to a story ) and simply think I’m there too !)

  10. I think you are going to like this; I have decided that I want to read Out Of Your Mind and Element…..
    in order to see if I can find that voice, that style that I am trying to find.
    The reason I like this is because I agree with you one hundred percent about creating ones voice; i got stuck in liking all of the voices that i tried on so much that I adopted some of them as a part of me!

    1. For me it is a matter of the Voice for these particular stories I need to get finished putting together.
      The idea has been to have the stories crossing over each other, much like Orson Scott Card’s Serie’s. Mine are all only short stories, vs novels like Card has and I have already arranged them numerous times and, just recently sent in a few to a couple publications. (wish me luck)
      Now I am sitting here just wondering what now which one and how?
      Maybe grabbing one of those voices that i know will be grounding, or
      Shall I create a new one?

  11. Thinking too much about how you sound to other people is bound to leave you paralyzed or twitching. If you want to know how you’re coming across, ask three people who are familiar with your writing to give you three adjectives each to describe it. If they say stilted, whiny, and egotistical, you have a challenge ahead. If they say clear, witty, and knowledgable, you’re probably fine.

  12. When writers talk semantics, I always get the giggles. Whether or not you “find” your voice or “create it”, it’s important to recognize it. If you don’t get caught up in “find” as a word that points to an external source, you can interpret this to mean that you have to find it from within. This speaks to me – the more I look within (usually from a form of meditative editing that strips extraneous influences and tired usage of the language), the more my true voice emerges. How do you recognize it? Instinctively. It’s not something you can put into words. Again, the irony of discussing writing and using words to discuss it always makes me smile. Good discussion, though, on our ability to shape a voice that rings true and comes from the heart. What do you really want to share with the world? That’s a good beginning.