You can’t throw a stone in a writing workshop without hitting a discussion about voice. We’re constantly told how important it is, how we’re supposed to use ours, or maybe find it. Yet most of us sit there silently wondering, what the heck is voice, anyway? I know I came across someone’s definition of it once or twice in an English class I was somnabulating through, but I’m pretty sure it got lost in the vortex of abstractions along with tone and mood. Maybe that’s where I lost it!
Anyway, while I don’t find discussions of voice nearly as interesting as your average literary critic, I do find the idea that each writer has a particular je ne sais quoi to offer quite compelling. But I doubt that what draws us to a particular author has as much to do with what the language coming from the author’s pen sounds like than it does from where the author chooses to direct our attention. What the author chooses to write about, in other words, and how she chooses to shape the lens she uses to capture her chosen topic, seems to me where the power of voice truly resides. And, similarly, I think when we struggle to “find our voices,” instead of pouring over what we’ve written for telltale birthmarks, I think it’s far more useful to look outside our writing to see what we’re choosing to speak about in our lives.
The author who struggles to find traction in a central relationship of her novel, for example, might wonder how clearly she’s willing to see some of her own central relationships. I know, I know – I’m already making you squeamish. But bear with me. Because it’s easy enough to see that the author who wants to feature a chef as her central character but is not willing to step into a kitchen might be in trouble, but when we take big risks in our writing, we tend to shy away from taking a closer look at how well we’re showing up in our actual lives for what we are asking our readers to devote their attention to. And the more meaning we want to bring to the page, the more meaning we need to be willing to tolerate in our lives. We may not like it, but the author who wishes to say something meaningful about human rights, for example, will struggle to do so unless she’s willing to take a close look at how willing she is to stick her neck out on behalf of others, and how effective her efforts to do just that might be.
I’m not saying that we need to spend a month in prison if we want to write about a prisoner. The correlation rarely needs to be that direct. We don’t see the unflinching courage of looking at the pain of losing relatives to the Holocaust in Maurice Sendak’s drawings, for example, but they do communicate an extraordinarily tender view of fear in a child. “I refuse to lie to children,” he once said, and more profound statement is rarely uttered. He is only one of several role models in the arts who remind me that often, when we’re casting about for a voice in our stories, we are failing to see the correlation between what we’re willing to witness and speak to in our lives and what we’re able to describe and speak to in our writing.
And the good news is that a little can go a long way. Listening with an open heart when our endlessly complaining mother starts complaining yet again, for example, might open the doors to shaping a far more prismatic view of motherhood in your next novel. Or looking the next person who asks you for money on the street in the eye when you reply might help you to recognize that the note of desperation in your central character’s remark on page 43 can be far more nuanced than it was when you walked down that same street the day before thinking only about getting your latte on time.
I’m usually not nearly as good at this as I want to be or sometimes think I am. I don’t think the idea is to become an entirely selfless, unfailingly conscientious person, because let’s face it – that would be almost as boring as being an incurable narcissist. I do think, however, that paying just a smidge more attention to what you do and do not choose to speak about and to in your own life can make a world of difference in the power of what you find yourself able to say on the page.
Art: Maurice Sendak, detail from Where the Wild Things Are