Every new Monday is like a new year, for me. I make resolutions to be focused, professional and productive; I make out my targets for the week ahead; I try to hit the ground running. I have great visions for what the next five days will bring, and I hope to make the most out of every single second of writing time that I can squeeze out of it.
That doesn’t mean I actually achieve any of it, of course. But I try.
In the midst of all this businesslike focus, though, it can sometimes be tough to remember that the point of writing is to create something, and that it’s not akin to building an engine or entering data into a spreadsheet; it’s important to keep in mind that in writing, you can’t predict how the working week will go, and how you’re going to feel about your work from one second to the next. It’s also important to remember one other thing: your writing voice, and how it can suffer under pressure. Without your writing voice, of course, you’re in big trouble.
But what does it even mean?
Finding a ‘voice’ is one of these things that everyone agrees is vital for a writer. It’s supposed to be your calling card, your ‘fingerprint’, your unique hook, your selling point. But how do you find it? How do you develop and nourish it? How do you know it’s ‘right’?
Well, in my opinion, the short response is that nobody knows the definitive answer to these questions. Everyone agrees that a ‘voice’ is important – nay, vital – but there are so many differing opinions on how to go about finding it that it should give any sensible person pause. I’ve read some advice which states things like ‘if it feels like work when you’re writing it, then you should probably think about changing your voice’; I’m not sure I agree with that. I’ve come across advice which tells me to imagine my ‘ideal’ reader and write to them – again, that’s problematic. Some advice-givers tell us that a writer’s voice is always an artifice – a construction designed to showcase their brilliant word-choices and their flawless plotting. Once again, you might have guessed I have a problem with this definition. I’ve also seen articles which exhort me to believe that if a person can talk, they can also write – as in, a good oral storyteller will be a good storyteller on paper, too – but I’m pretty sure I don’t believe this, either. I write a lot more clearly and a lot more coherently than I speak, as anyone who’s listened to me ramble on for hours on end will, no doubt, attest.
The only key to finding your voice, at least as far as I can see, is to write honestly. I’m talking here about creative writing, more than writing with another purpose such as journalism or non-fiction writing, purely because I have more experience with it – I’m sure honest writing makes for more solid copy in journalistic terms, too, though. In terms of fiction writing, including creative writing and blogs, the only things you need to find your voice, in my opinion, are time and courage. Time, of course, is obvious enough – practice as often as possible, write as regularly as possible and get as much feedback as possible over the course of the weeks or months or even years that it takes you to feel comfortable with what you’re producing, and don’t try to rush the process. There is no race to be run – it’s not like there’s a limited amount of voices on offer and the slowest writers are left with the dregs.
But what about courage?
Writing, by itself, is not really a scary thing. The fear of the blank page is common enough, and the terror that comes to all of us who write when the words just dry up and refuse to make an appearance is also well known. The creation of a document – be it a book, an article, a poem, whatever – is (or perhaps should be) more about joy, fulfilment and a sense of rewarding hard work than about fear; to me, the brave bit is what comes after you’ve finished the writing. Firstly, you’ve got to be brave enough to let other people see what you’ve written. And, even more importantly, you’ve got to be brave enough to write what you want to write.
I’ve fallen into the trap myself, many times, of trying to write what I think an editor or a judge will want to read. I’ve tried to change my focus, write a story the likes of which I wouldn’t normally dream of writing, tried to develop a style which might be more in keeping with the sort of thing they normally enjoy – and do you want to know the truth of it? It has never worked. Not once. I’m not sure if it’s because the editor/judge in question has spotted that the work is not ‘authentic’, or because I’m just not very good at writing when it’s not coming from a place of honesty, but either way it just hasn’t been worth the effort of changing my voice to suit someone else. Being brave enough to write what you want to write can sometimes mean you still won’t win the competition you’ve entered or that you run the risk of not impressing the person to whom you’ve submitted your work; at least, though, you can rest easy in the knowledge that you wrote a ‘true’ piece, something that was meaningful to you. The work will be stronger for it, even if it’s not to the taste of the judge or editor who has the task of evaluating it. Writing is an extremely subjective business, too – so how are you to build up your own voice if you’re constantly changing it to suit the vagaries of editors and judges?
In my opinion, then, you shouldn’t listen to any advice you get on the internet (including this blog post) about how to find and cultivate your writing voice. My opinion is write what you want to write, polish it as hard as you can and be proud of every word, and submit it with courage until you find someone who responds to the notes of honesty and conviction in what you’ve written. However, of course, take that advice with a pinch of salt. Writing should be fun, but it is also hard work and a craft which needs honing and polishing; finding a voice is like learning how to use grammar and how to construct a sentence. It takes time, but it’s worth the journey. It’s not something which should be rushed, and it’s not worth trying to take shortcuts to achieve it. Just write with your soul in your fingertips, and be brave.
And, of course, patient.