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You Want to Have a Remarkable Voice? Listen.

Click on the photo to hear a distinct voice.

Note: We’re hungry to master our craft. At least judging from the questions readers and clients have sent me, we are. And judging from the research about what motivates us, we are. The following is the third in a series of articles about mastering that slippery thing called “voice.”  Have fun.

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Part I: Don’t Waste Your Time Trying to Find a Voice. Create it.
Part II: How to Kiss Your Readers with the Syntax of Things

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You want to be remarkable? Or taken seriously? Or “show your freak self” as a blogger or writer or web entrepreneur?

Then get voice.

Mastery more than money motivates us human beings. And when it comes to mastering the art of writing, more than grammar or story arcs or dialogue rules or the art of poetic line breaks, what eludes many writers, bloggers, and web entrepreneurs is voice.

Yes, you can learn from the conventional wisdom: Write like you speak. But why limit your writing voice to the same chummy or brazen “bad-ass” or gosh-darn earnest “conversational” pal voice as everyone else’s? Why not break that rule? Why not give your blog style?

Why not risk flare? Why not risk nuance or subtlety?

Why not? Because the blog police will scream at you for showing off or for being clever or, sin of sins, being “literary”?

To get voice, play. But play deeply. Take risks. Have fun. And why not put yourself in good company and learn from the people who have been innovating language for centuries – poets and novelists and essayists who have devoted much of their hours and days to that very endeavor?

Here are some suggestions.

A client, who is a fine writer and who also has an MFA in Creative Writing, complained last week that she couldn’t find her voice for her memoir. I suggested she not waste her time trying to find her voice.

I suggested she listen.

The ear’s the thing. We do not find a voice as much as we open our ears to the cadence of unspoken words and finagled sentences that distinguish one writing voice from another.

Writers craft a voice or many voices by reading others’ writing with their ears. While Steinbeck, an atheist, rewrote The Grapes of Wrath, he immersed himself in the cadences of the King James’ version of the Bible. Read some rolling passages from Exodus and then read Steinbeck’s rolling passages about migrant farmers, and you’ll hear what struck the compassionate novelist.

Slow read other writers’ work. Read with the pace of a summer afternoon. Then, voices of the dead and of the present might mesh with what voice you call your own. Such a way of reading with the inner ear is more likely to lead you to developing a memorable voice on the page than listening solely to the way you speak. Converse with the printed word. Converse with dead writers. Let them shape your writing voices.

We try on personas to see which one fits for an identity. Same with voice. We try out other writers’ voices to see which ones sound right.

Eliot wrote some of his best poems while immersed in reading the rhythms of Donne’s poems, of Ovid’s tales, of St. John’s Gospel. Nobel Prize recipient Seamus Heaney has written about his “Hopkins ventriloquism,” how Gerard Manley Hopkins’s voice shaped young Heaney’s ear.

An authentic writer’s voice, then, does not come ex nihilo from some ideal plane of originality; it is in part a voice influenced by a dead, remote, or live mentor or even the butcher down the road.

Stretch yourself and pick up a poet. Why? Because most poets I know and respect spend more time than most people listening. They listen to melodies and rhythms and the ways evening light sounds. If you want rhythm in your voice, pick up a poet. Or a book of poetry, to be precise.

Don’t be put off by poets whose work you don’t “get.” Just listen to the cadences more than the meaning as if you’re listening to someone sing in a language you don’t speak. If you’d rather read a poet whose work seems more “accessible,” then try Billy Collins’ poetry. His affable persona has won him accolades and millions of fans.

Be influenced by other writers whose voices you admire.
We’re all influenced by each other. So you might as well choose who influences you. When you admit this influence, you free yourself up from the burden of thinking you have some secret mysterious voice within you that is only yours that, regardless, you cannot “find.”

And as soon as you can let go of trying to own your writing voice, let alone find it, ironically your authentic voice or voices might emerge.

I encourage many clients to seek out either a remote mentor or a dead mentor. A remote mentor is a writer still living, yet who advises a writer solely via the mentor’s texts. A dead mentor is the same, of course, just dead. So Scott Russell Sanders could be a remote mentor for those writers or bloggers who want a contemplative storyteller voice who can think about a baby’s cackle in one breath and the universe’s sense of humor in the next. Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours is an extended study of emulation and an homage to one of his dead mentors, Virginia Woolf.

Imagine you’ve found a mentor – a writer whose work you want to learn from. Find a passage—fifty words, a hundred, may suffice. Then read and heed—slowly—the syllables, the twists in syntax, the edgy wit or bawdy humor, or the saturnine gravitas that drums through the paragraphs. Let the passage wash over you.

Then record, word by word, this passage. Notice how your body feels as you handwrite these sentences’ rhythms. Your inner ear cannot help but tune in. Numerous writers keep notebooks full of such passages, not just for the passage’s message but also for the qualities I’ve just noted: the cadences, the images, the twists, the tones.

Commit a few lines to memory. Choose something that informs your own writer’s voice. Doing so builds the inner ear muscle, so to speak.

You’ll feel and hear those rhythms creeping into your writing. (So be careful what you choose to memorize.)

You’re not demystifying the magic of that mentor’s voice. You’re discovering how to honor that voice via emulation—the highest compliment.

And that client who sought her voice for her memoir? She immersed herself in memoirs by Mary Karr and Jeanette Walls. That study gave her permission to crack open her own lyrical voice that evoked the point of view of her character as a little girl. I sensed Karr’s and Walls’ influence, and I heard my client’s true voice.

You likely grew up flooded with other authoritative voices—parents, professors, mentors, bosses. So, no wonder you struggle to hear on the page a voice we might call our authentic one, that voice of your own authority. (nerd note: “authenticity” comes from the Greek, authentes, acting upon one’s own authority.)

And, yes, I am suggesting you choose your influences so you’re not influenced in ignorance.

Emulating another voice increases your versatility as a writer. Or as a blogger. Or as someone who’s trying to communicate to your tribe what you’re all about.

Imitation might be suicide, as Emerson says, but emulation might be rebirth.

And then listen within.
At some point, after some years of practice and study, you leave the books behind and come to a clearing in the woods or the city park. You sit on a stone. It’s just you and the wind and the warbler and the things that shuffle in the grass. And what do you hear?

That great voice within. It’s your own even though you don’t own it. You simply give it wings.

See you in the woods,

What about you?
Whose writing voices do you study or have you studied? What stories do you have of trying to “find” your own voice versus crafting your own voices?

Some of this content has been re-arranged and recycled from The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing (revised & updated ed., Monkfish, 2008).

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  1. Beautifully said, Jeffrey, thank you. I particularly like the line about how poets listen to “the ways evening light sounds.” I also like the idea of conversing with the writers we want to emulate. This isn’t only practice, it is letting those mirror neurons fire in a new environment.

    I also think it is important to listen internally to how we feel when reading those whom we want to emulate. Recognizing those feelings is an important path to being able to write in a way that recalls those feelings.

    And, finally, I appreciate the distinction between imitation and emulation. That is an important distinction that is very freeing. Thank you!

    1. Susan: Thanks for your comments. Ah, the mirror neurons – that’s an excellent connection. There is quite a bit of new research about what happens in our brains when we read.

      Feelings: Yes, precisely. I find it important to pay attention to how I feel kinesthetically while reading others’ writings with care.

      I appreciate your dropping in.

  2. What an appropriate title, for my own journey. I spent months barely able to speak with my physical voice last year. I teach, sing and write. The lack of auditory voice impacted my writing voice as well.

    Thanks to wonderful doctors and the Univ. of Michigan voice therapy clinic, I can now speak and sing more strongly than ever in my 52 years. I’m now addressing my voice online/writing, after months of relative quiet and restraint.

    Thank you.

  3. Lynn: Wow, what a journey you have had.

    You know, it sounds as if you’ve gone on a journey toward truth – singing it, writing it, speaking it. It does take some of us about 40, 50, 60 years – if we’re lucky – to open up that voice.

    Congratulations, Lynn.

    Thanks for dropping in.

  4. Thank you for the shout out to poets as the masters of voice – indeed in so many poems the voice is the distinguishing factor. If you want to hear a master of voice (and yes I meant here, not read), listen to Li-Young Lee read his own poetry on the CD at the back of Behind My Eyes.

    In my own writing I have apprenticed myself at a distance to several poets. Each time I grow and learn to listen to my own words more closely. Thank you so much for clarifying that emulation is not commensurate to imitation.

  5. Erin:
    Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate Li-Young Li’s poetry, and we’ve both taught at the Block Island Poetry Project, but I’ve never heard him on CD. Thanks for that resource!

    Please drop in again (Apologies for late reply! The message indicator didn’t come through my inbox.)