Voice Workshop, 14 March 2015


Find Your Voice is one of the great myths of creative writing; you have a voice already, so let’s find ways to turn it into writing.

That is the summary form of this workshop at Saturday’s Getting Published Day, where we discussed how the natural speaking voice is one of the greatest gifts for any writer. It’s authentic, it’s fresh. It’s usually direct and economical and uncluttered, with relatively few adjectives or adverbs. And best of all (if you’re lazy, like me), the natural speaking voice is accessible and instinctive. It’s easy to use. Why make life hard?

We talked about overwriting, and writing that tries too hard. Fiction has the purpose of telling a story, and anything that gets in the way of moving that story forward might need to be pruned; as my teacher and friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins used to say: ‘Tell it fast, honey, tell it fast!’ We also thought about tone as an aspect of voice that brings emotion into our work, and we considered voice as an aspect of the style or personality of a piece of writing.

I didn’t get time to specifically introduce the idea of persona, but we can also think about the way in which a voice can shape and reflect character – Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues are a great example of this, and they also (as we did manage to discuss) provide fantastic examples of the ways in which everyday voices make characters and stories come to life. Look some of them up and listen to them. We did manage to listen to Nina Stibbe read the opening of her memoir Love, Nina, which is based on her letters home from London; handwritten letters are perhaps the closest we get to the natural speaking voice instinctively working on a page, and the ones in this book have a beautiful, fresh voice full of warmth and concrete observations. Strong and simple verbs, strong and simple nouns. We also read aloud part of Joe Brainard’s ‘I Remember’, which also lacks self-consciousness while possessing personality in spades.

We focused on first-person narration, though, as I said, this can present limits within the larger scheme of a novel. But practising your own writing by using the first-person can be a fabulous way of growing your own strong voice, and at certain points in your career as a writer it makes sense to invest time in practice rather than being so outcome-oriented. So here are some previously posted writing experiments relative to voice:

Voice 1: Listening
Voice 2: Tone
Voice 3: Passion and Purpose
Voice 4: Other Voices
Variations on the Form of ‘I Remember’
Dear Diaries

Try some of these exercises yourself. Even, perhaps, take some time away from your major project in order simply to experiment with voice in writing. E.g., instead of NaNoWriMo, why not write a different ‘I Remember’ every day for a month (I Remember School Holidays, I Remember My First Job, I Remember Dogs). Give yourself a month-long boot camp in which you exercise the muscle of that natural speaking voice on the page. Your voice will become stronger, I’m sure.

And my post Tell Me A Story might offer further ideas for how voice informs narration more broadly (including the importance of third-person narrators). The natural speaking voice often needs adapting, but it is a strong foundation for writing, particularly at the start of a project.

This workshop also addressed how achieving that natural speaking voice in writing might require us to learn how to write all over again. Maybe that is just a matter of shaking off other forms of writing that have captured our voices for other purposes. Here are the examples I read out in class of voices that have, for whatever reason, become garbled, cluttered, opaque or meaningless. First, some academic writing (which I confess to nicking from the Bad Writing Contest once run by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature):

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

An example of pasty writing of a different kind (a thinner paste, less goopy) came from a university selling one of its courses (I borrowed this from Constance Hale’s excellent Sin and Syntax):

The programme will be of interest to graduates as well as professionals working in these areas … It will be of relevance to those desirous of adding legal understandings to these perspectives. It will also be of interest to students wishing to proceed to a doctorate in the anthropology of human rights and related areas.

Publishers are not immune from garbled stodge, either, as this bit of a recent press release shows:

Immersing oneself anew in the rhythms and cadences of Harper Lee’s rich prose and meeting Scout fully grown makes for an irresistible read which also casts new light on one of the most popular classics of modern literature.

Styles of writing found in commercial or business contexts can also creep into fiction:

World-famous toggler and man about town Linus Walping entered his spacious, well-appointed apartment and walked to the handcrafted artisanal windows, where he basked in the breathtaking and unparalleled vistas of the magnificent Lavish River awaiting his gaze. Just returned from a first-class whirlwind vacation with his girlfriend, the glamorous model/actress Rain Weste, at the luxurious playground of the upper crust, the deluxe five-star Splendide Hotel in the heart of metropolitan Darien’s top-notch nightlife and luxury shopping, Reginald looked forward to a delicious, mouth-watering repast, sure to rival his wildest dream.

This example of slick writing laden with info dumps is taken from How Not to Write a Novel, and, being practical rather than bitchy about bad writing, I read out a wise observation from its authors: ‘Advertising copywriters are faced with a very different task than you, the novelist. They generally have only a few lines to get their message across – only seconds of the reader’s attention – and they have for this reason developed a concentrated and artificial form of language, very different from what we general think of in writing.’

So: what is the purpose of the writing you are doing, and what sort of voice does it need? Fiction and narrative nonfiction often use connotation and suggestion to create mood and energy, unlike other types of writing that explain or describe things in more explicit detail as they primarily need to convey information or ideas without ambiguity. Stories need to bring worlds of feeling to life. Stories sometimes need to embody life’s great mysteries.

Apologies (again) for tech hitches – I think I’m just going to *not* rely on technology at all in future! But I think we managed okay in the end. And apologies for not covering so many other things we could have touched upon. There’s only so much we can cover in an hour (Tell it fast, honey, tell it fast!).

But the last two things I want to stress:

* Listen to audiobooks, even if it’s just occasionally. And preferably only listen to the good recordings – memorable ones for me include Brokeback Mountain read by Campbell Scott, the third Harry Potter read by Jim Dale on a road trip to Las Vegas, and On the Road read by Matt Dillon, which is utterly utterly magical. Do share any of your own favourites in comments below.

Listening is another aspect of reading, after all, and it can be an immersive and transformative experience that will soak into your writing bones.

* Read your own work aloud. It’s a great test when revising and editing. If you stumble, might something need changing? Maybe read your own work aloud to someone else. If their eyes glass over, maybe you need to do something to make the writing less boring. If their eyes light up, you’re doing something right: return to that later, and bottle it.

(Though, of course, know that some writing is destined to be read quietly and alone in acts of contemplation, rather than read aloud. There are always exceptions in the creative arts. In this instance, I’m saying that reading aloud is a useful tool, even if not the final intended outcome.)

A third thing (me and my voice, I can’t stop talking, excess is my weakness). Thinking of eyes glassing over, there is an exception to the idea there are no rules in writing. There is one and only one rule in writing:

* Don’t be boring.

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