Monday, August 29, 2005

Finding my voice

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about voice. Not as in singing (I like to sing, but my singing voice is only adequate at best), but my writing voice. One of the criticisms of my novel (from an editor who turned it down) was that it didn’t have a sharp enough voice. I think I’m beginning to understand what he meant, I’m just not sure how to achieve it.

I’ve become more aware of distinctive voices — the narrative voices of Peace Like a River and To Kill a Mockingbird, for example. Those books are written from first-person points of view, but that doesn’t always guarantee a distinctive voice. I can think of bloggers with distinctive voices, too: I think I would recognize Jeanne Damoff’s or Brenda Coulter’s writing even if their names weren’t attached. Chris is another one — I’ve read some of his writing and it conveys his own unique (and humorous) way of looking at the world. I could name several others, but I think I’ve illustrated my point. Distinctive voices pull me into a story, let me feel as if I know the writer a little bit. Without a strong voice, a story might engage me to some extent, but I never lose the sense that I’m reading a story. It doesn’t grab me by the throat and dare me to just try and put it down.

My mom recognizes my voice in my writing, but she knows me well. I suspect that people who don’t know me well, don’t find my writing voice that distinctive. So I wonder what’s lacking? Am I just not good enough? Is a distinctive voice one of those things you either have or don’t have? Or is it something that can be developed?

I suspect, though its not something I’m positive about, that finding my voice has something to do with writing from the heart. Mark’s post Friday has stayed with me, largely because I know that I hold back. Technically, I’m capable of being a pretty good writer, but if that’s all I can do, that’s probably not good enough.

There’s a scene in Gaudy Night where Dorothy Sayers, through her characters Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, ponders what it takes to write from the heart. Harriet tells Peter that she’s having trouble with her new novel — the characters just don’t seem to be cooperating. Peter offers some suggestions for clearing up some of the problems, but Harriet sees how that would introduce a new, deeper dimension into what started out as a standard sort of mystery. Harriet says:
“Yes—he’d be interesting. But if I give Wilfrid all those violent and lifelike feelings, he’ll throw the whole book out of balance.”
“You would have to abandon the jig-saw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change.”
“I’m afraid to try that, Peter. It might go too near the bone.”
“It might be the wisest thing you could do.”
“Write it out and get rid of it?”
“I’ll think about that. It would hurt like hell.”
“What would that matter, if it made a good book?”

The truth is that growth, development, is often painful and I’m a wimp. Do I lack the passion, the drive to say “what would that matter” if it made me a better writer? Do I hold back too much of myself? (“Yeah right” you’re thinking -- she’s spilling her guts in a blog. But most people who read this don’t know me personally. I’m writing this as much for myself -- I’m spilling my guts to a computer.)

I’m generally pretty laid back, introverted, buttoned-down. I hold my temper, I restrain my urge to dance in public, I try to conform my behavior to certain socially-acceptable norms. I’m the classic people-pleasing oldest child. My teenage rebellion was much more internal than external. I’m still that way -- a lot.

But more and more I wonder what would it look like if I found a way to write from the depths of my soul?


TS said...

You gotta do it. Let her rip.
Great actors act from theheart, great musicians sing from the heart, great dancers dance from the heart...Don't hold back... then again don't go and get maudlin on me either

lindaruth said...

You're right. Have you seen "In America"? It's a great movie and one of the main characters is an actor who's still grieving the loss of his young son. He can't act because he can't feel. But it's not too maudlin. :)


TS said...

Good then you are on.

Meg said...

Chiming in late to say I love Dorothy Sayers. I own all her mysteries, but I don't remember that conversation from Gaudy Night. Probably because I haven't re-read it since I started writing fiction myself and learned just how much truth that dialogue holds.

Marvin's right, and so's Peter. Let 'er rip!

Julana said...

I'm the eldest, too. Someone's gotta be responsible and hold down the fort.
I think finding a voice has to do with having enough time to write a lot. You probably get into a sort of groove that identifies you. You have time to get to know yourself, who you are, in your writing.
Of course, there's a level of vulnerability, too.
I'm with you on Brenda Coulter. I can believe that she writes an entertaining book.

Valerie Comer said...

Hugs, Linda. Sometimes it takes awhile to train your writing voice, too, as it does a singing voice. But yes, honesty helps, writing from the gut. You'll do good.

lindaruth said...

Thanks for the encouragement everybody.
Meg, you should reread Gaudy Night. Some aspects of the story seem dated now, but as a whole it holds up pretty well and I never cease to be delighted by the witty dialogue and literary references.

Chris said...

Gaudy Night was the first DL Sayers book I read. Wonder what rereading it would be like now that I know who the Peter & Harriet are.

Don't obsess over voice, Linda. Write with passion, verve -- as Ray Bradbury suggests: gusto; voice will take care of itself. And, like "discovering" your voice on your answering machine, you may be surprised to hear how you sound to the rest of us.

Pleasantly surprised, I think.

--Chris (dFm)

lindaruth said...

Thanks again, all. You're the best.