Sunday, February 17, 2008

Notes on Finding Your Voice

"It would take a whole book to chart the brilliant deviations the voice can take to prevent its owner from being known."--Iris Warren, voice teacher (from Finding Your Writer' s Voice by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall)
When I use my voice to speak, I'm engaging in a different process than the one required to "hear" my voice inside my head as I write words on paper.

As I speak, I need to think about how my voice sounds, and whether I'm speaking loudly enough to be heard, and what the tone is, and whether the people (or person) to whom I'm speaking can hear me, and, more importantly, if they can understand the words coming from my mouth.

At the same time, I'm interpreting their glances, and how they roll their eyes, and if they're frowning or smiling, and I'll adjust my voice, as well as edit what I say, depending on the response that my voice evokes in my listener.

All this... (whew!) ... just to speak and be heard.

But when I'm writing, it's just me--and the pen and paper--listening to what I'm thinking.

Yes, the paper may be too rough or too bright, the flow of ink too fast or too faint, or the pencil may break, or I can't write fast enough, or I have to stop and think.

Even so, it's just me and the page, and the process is entirely different than speaking to someone.

When we write for a reader, though, we find ourselves caught somewhere between these two extremes.

We may not be speaking to a listener face-to-face, but we are writing to someone other than ourselves.

And this seemingly slight variation can change the way we think, and the way we hear what we're saying, and the way that we put words on paper.

How does making this kind of distinction help us find our true voice?

Well, the very act of writing... of hearing oneself think aloud on paper...can help a writer begin to detect differences in his or her voice.

Is it the voice you'd use in public or private?

Is it the voice you'd share with a trusted friend or a new colleague, an elderly parent or a teenage child?

We use so many different voices during the day. But which one is our true voice, the one which reveals the deepest core of our being and lets others see inside us and feel that core along with us?

"Writers, like singers, are often nervous performers," write Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall in their remarkable book, Finding Your Writer's Voice. "Relying too heavily on technique, or craft, is just one of the many intricate ways writers disguise themselves from themselves, and from the world."

To find your true voice, you need to be willing to drop the disguises. But to do this, you first need to recognize the many disguises that you use during the course of your day to hide your true voice.

You can explore your various voices through writing. From this exploration you can learn to recognize the disguises that hide your true voice as well as begin to "hear" a voice that's unguarded, a voice that has no protective cloak hiding it.

"A whole cast of other imposter voices waits in the wings to step in when the writer is feeling uncomfortable," write Frank and Wall. "The academic voice, the psychological voice, the literary voice. The voice of abstraction and analysis, the overly logical voice, the polite voice. You write 'His words set off defensive signals in my mind' instead of 'I was furious.'"

Being able to distinguish the difference between your true voice and the voice of the imposter is essential if a writer wants to find his or her true voice.

In the end, it's only by writing, and then by writing more and more, that one's true voice begins to emerge on the page.

When it does emerge, it appears as if by magic, and looks effortless to achieve.

But, really, it may have taken a writer years of searching-- and careful listening-- to find.

For more thoughts on finding your voice, visit these sites:

For information about Thaisa Frank (and a handful of interviews with her in the "Links" section of her website), visit:

And for information about Dorothy Wall and her work, visit:


Thaisa Frank said...

What you say about voice is interesting and true, Bruce. And I'm glad Finding Your Writer's Voice has been helpful.

I was struck by your line that:

"When it [voice] does emerge, it appears as if by magic, and looks effortless to achieve."

I'll always think that the first discovery of voice feels effortless: It’s the fragment that seems to arise from nowhere, or the poem, essay or story that has amazing unity and could only have been written by *that* writer.

But this magic doesn't always continue. And my sense is this is why some writers get discouraged after the first amazing experience of voice.

It’s still my thought that most trenchant interruptions to voice come from an inner critic who wants to stop the writing process.

But it's also true that there are also some interruptions that come from a writer's astute sense about what will enhance and illuminate the piece as a whole. They can seem like the same inner critic and also stifle voice. And they're only useful to work with (in my opinion) after a writer has discovered his or her voice

In a magic world, the “voice of the line” should flow into “the voice of the story.” And then voice should disappear into its own creation. And the writer will feel satisfaction an relief.

But since the world isn’t magic, questions come up before the story is done and they can feel like an interruption. Some involve issues of accessibility to the reader (i.e. questions about universality), or arise from the writer not knowing “what happens next.” Or they can involve issues of craft, like pacing, or whether the characters speak differently from each other.

These questions usually feel like interruptions because they seem “outside” of voice. They refer to an unfinished or incomplete story, which the writer hoped magically to accomplish through voice, but which remains elusive--"out there"--yet vulnerable to comment.

When I first wrote Finding Your Writer’s Voice with Dorothy Wall, I was aware of these questions because I 'd already written two books of short stories (the last A Brief History of Camouflage). But I was more interested in helping writers discover the first outpourings of voice because--without that--you’ll never write something original.

Still, the same questions continued to come up while I was writing my next published collection and they came up more strongly in the novel I just finished.

Like most writers, I often deal with these questions in a hit-or-miss process. But in the course of writing the novel, I found that there were a few frameworks and vocabularies that brought voice closer to the unfinished story and made them into more intimate strangers.

I'd I love to talk about this more.

All best--and thanks for mentioning the book,


Bruce said...


Many thanks for your response... which helps readers go much deeper into the issues of finding their true voices than my initial post.

That phrase "intimate strangers" so accurately portrays what it feels like to write from your heart for people who you will (most likely) never meet and yet who will come to know you intimately through your writing.

Constructing a voice that is intimate--it can't just sound intimate, it must be intimate--for strangers, is one of the challenges, I think, involved in shedding the disguises and letting your true voice shine out.

It's a challenge, I think, because it's very hard--and counter-intuitive to a great extent--to express yourself intimately to someone who you've never met.

Anyway, I think your readers will be happy to know that you're thinking about a further response to these questions... and that when you're ready, you'll share your thoughts with us here at Wordswimmer.

Again, many thanks for sharing your many insights.

Jack said...

wordswimmer's discussion and thaisa's follow-up were very insightful about finding and maintaining that unique voice for our characters. Good stuff.