Is it Time for Voice Lessons?

Think back to when you first began to write. I mean way, way back when when writing was an adventure. For me, writing stories came right along with learning how to spell. Whole novels were written in Big Chief tablets with thick-leaded pencils. In those days, writing was Fun.

Then things got serious.

For awhile, it seemed the more I learned about the craft of writing, the more difficult the act became. I put away all that playful abandon and begin to “work” at my writing. Of course, the harder I worked, the less I sounded like me.

I fell under the spell of one writer after another and my writing reflected my current crush in hints of imitation. I never got very good at imitation and besides, who would want ice milk when you could have Ben & Jerry’s? And never mind if one comment from my writing group contradicted another; I tried to respond to all of them and, predictably, wound up with one hot mess of a manuscript.

That authentic voice that had come so easily and made writing the thing I wanted to do more than anything else had been, if not completely lost, certainly muted.

How to uncover, recover, discover that authentic voice?

Following are some exercises that continue to help me practice what I preach. My approach: wild abandon. No judgment. Have fun.

1. Stream of consciousness
Also called free-intuitive writing, flow writing, free association, automatic writing, spontaneous writing, this method of writing reaches into the deep recesses of the intuitive and brings forth words and ideas that can surprise and delight you. Don’t worry about making any logical sense, you probably won’t.

2. Writing practice
Write in timed, focused writings for at least ten minutes every day, 17 is better. A Writer’s Book of Days offers a prompt for every day, or make up your own. It’s through the regular, ongoing practice that your authentic voice and its many nuances will emerge.

3. Writing zazen (from One Continuous Mistake by Gail Sher)
“Write on the same subject every day for two weeks. Revisiting the same subject day after day will force you to exhaust stale, inauthentic, spurious thought patterns and dare you to enter places of subtler, more ‘fringe’ knowing.”

4. Record your voice
Tell (don’t read) a story into a recorder, a story you have written or one you have heard. Listen to your storytelling voice. How is it different from your “writing” voice?

5. Give voice to the words you love
Fill a page with words you love, not because of what they mean, but because your ears like to hear them; because you like the way they taste in your mouth. The way the letters come together pleases your eyes. Say the words out loud. Honor them by speaking them distinctly, biting the consonants and savoring the vowels.

6. Listen to the voices in your head
Sometimes my born-in-the-midwest, semi-country voice with all its dropped g endin’s and long vowels shows up when I’m attempting to be ultra hip and a little edgy. Do you have voices that you stifle when you’re trying to “write”? Just for fun, listen to what these voices want to say. Who knows what surprises might show up on the page.

7. Play
Write words that don’t make sense when they bump against each other. Write a paragraph of nonsense sentences and read it aloud to hear the rhythm of the words. This suggestion comes from Finding Your Writer’s Voice, by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall, which offers many suggestions for accessing your natural voice. My copy is dog-eared and littered with sticky notes.

How do you practice your voice lessons? What’s your favorite way to make your own loud and joyful noise on the page?

7 thoughts on “Is it Time for Voice Lessons?

  1. The “Voice Lessons” conversation here reminded me of a recent volume of poetry I read. HE DO THE GAY MAN IN DIFFERENT VOICES by Stephen S. Mills and published by Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012. ( http://siblingrivalrypress.com/he-do-the-gay-man-in-different-voices-by-stephen-s-mills/ )

    Mr. Mills states in his notes that “[t]he title of the poem is a play off the original title of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (“He do the Police in Different Voices”).

    Both poetry and prose writers require many voices. Throwing one’s voice is a useful talent as well.

    • Thanks, Russ. I’m glad you joined the conversation and appreciate your comment about “throwing voices.” I think of the echo, too & how reading a writer I love (Annie Dillard, let’s say) and find an echo of her style in my work for days afterward. A very faint echo, mind you, but still.

  2. I never really thought about voice when I took up writing as something grownups actually do (after realizing that after all where do all those books come from). People to whom I wrote always said my letters sound like me talking so I just kept doing that. So I stayed with that. I just sound like me.

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