When I was first starting out as a writer I had the bad habit of attempting to emulate the styles of my favourite writers. This meant that at any given moment my writing could sound like early 20th-century Irish (Joyce in pre-Ulysses days), 1930s east coast American (e. e. cummings), 1950s-to early 1960s American (any number of beat writers including Kerouac and Richard Farina), 19th-century naturalist (Flaubert, Zola, even a little Tolstoy thrown in for good measure), and traces of Classical Roman poets (Catullus, and Ovid, in translation of course).
Part of the reason for that cacophony of voices was my desire to impress people with my artistic credentials. "Wow," I could hear them saying in my head, "He writes just like a mixture of"… any combination of two or more of the above I could imagine being said about my latest contribution to the pantheon of artistic creation. It didn't matter to me that, at the time, I had as much chance of my writing being compared favourably to Joyce's as I did of passing as Mel Gibson.
One of the bigger ironies about all of this is that, over the years, I've since discovered one of the hardest things an author can attempt to do is write in somebody else's style. You end up expending so much time and energy making sure you sound like the author you are imitating, that the story you're writing is given short shrift and you are lucky if you ever finish. It's quite amazing how many "40 pages of a novel" one person can write!
I'm sure many of you out there have gone through the process of beginning to pursue writing of one sort or another and have been told somewhere along the line to find your own "voice." It's made to sound like some great quest you are to set out on. Quest For Voice or The Author And The Holy Voice. Only discover the secret of your "voice" grasshopper and you too can have a multi-million dollar deal with Harper-Collins. (I'm sure that's what was said to me anyway)
The first time I was either told or had read that commandment, I remember getting a feeling of panic in the pit of my stomach. What the hell did that mean, find your own voice? How did one go about expressing the voice that one hears in your head using words on paper? What did it sound like out loud or look like written down?
I don't know when I first realized I was making a huge something of nothing, but I think it was around the time I started seriously writing again a few years ago. After a decade or so of self-imposed exile, I began to reacquaint myself with the pleasures of putting words on paper. I was working a full time job at the time and my wife was doing a full time course of study via correspondence and required the use of the computer during her waking hours.
I would make sure I woke up early enough that I would be able to have a couple of hours on the computer to write before I went off to work. I began work on a story that had some potential, but the more I worked on it, the more derivative it began to sound to my ear. It wasn't just the content that bothered me, but the fact that I didn't recognise the voice behind the action as belonging to me.
I went back to some of my favourite storytellers and listened to their stories as I read them. In some cases I would even read them aloud to see if I could figure out what made a person's voice unique. As I did this I began to imagine seeing the author actually speaking the words I was reading.
This was when I had my own little personal epiphany on the subject of voice. No matter what style each writer was utilizing or story they were telling, the ones I really liked were just being themselves. It was their story to tell after all, so why shouldn't they be present, in a manner of speaking.
This doesn't mean they were only writing in the first person, but are describing circumstances, situations, and character from their perspective. It takes a great deal of bravery for the author to put him or herself in such a vulnerable position. In order to write like this, and for it to work, you have to know yourself and be brutally honest in your opinion of yourself.
Otherwise, the story will ring false because it will sound like you are still imitating someone else. Until you've faced up to all your own personal demons, you're going to be holding something back from your emotional commitment to the work that will leave a hollowness in all you write.
This is the true meaning of artistic integrity, committing yourself totally to whatever it is your working on. It's also where your voice comes from; the more you can commit of yourself to a story, the louder and clearer your voice will ring out and distinguish your work from others.
This is vital in these days of bland mediocrity where everything sounds and looks the same, where individuality of expression is of far more importance now than it ever was before. Uniformity of expression, where everyone looks and acts the same, is fine for an army made up of those who are trained to obey orders without question. But writers are individuals who should not be expected to march in step with anyone but their own motivations and inspirations.
A writer's voice is his or her artistic soul, not something that should be idly made to conform or fit into a hole, unable to accommodate diversity. Voice has nothing to do with content, so don't confuse this with a freedom of speech issue. Rather it has everything to do with your means of expression and how you choose to go about telling the story within the rules of your language.
Grammar is the structure that supplies cohesion and coherency to your voice and spelling the means of accurately identifying the words you use to communicate with. They are your tools and must be respected and understood the same way a painter will respect and understand paints, colours, and brushes. An abstract painter learns portraiture; a jazz improvisational genius spent years learning scales; a writer must know how words work together properly before being able to abandon those rules for experimentation.
Aside from these rules, and some points of style for purposes of address and title, a writer's voice should be sacrosanct. It is their only means of distinguishing themselves from countless others doing the same work or writing on the same topic. A writer's voice is the soul of his or her work. Cut this out and you leave a shell of the story behind.