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?

20 Ways to Make it Better (#2)

#2. Write in your own voice

Remember Eddie Haskell on the old television program, “Leave it to Beaver”?

“How are you today, Mrs. Cleaver? You certainly look lovely.” “Isn’t it a lovely day today, Mrs. Cleaver?” He had this way of speaking to June Cleaver that was so fake, so phony. Not at all the way he spoke with Wally and The Beav. June didn’t believe him and neither did we.

Do you ever talk that way in your public voice? “Unaccustomed as I am…” “May I inquire…” Does it ever seep over into your writing?

Sometimes if we go for what we think of as proper or educated or smart, instead of sounding smart, we wind up sounding stilted. The natural rhythms and cadences of our real voices are absent and we don’t sound like ourselves or even anyone we know.

Here’s the thing: your own voice is the place and people you come from, the language you learned at the kitchen table and in the back yard. Your own voice comes naturally. Grace Paley said, “If you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends, you’ll probably say something beautiful.”

If you’re having difficulty getting words down on the page, if you feel like you’re arm-wrestling with your pen, if you scratch out and rewrite, if you think instead of writing, especially first-draft writing, then you can bet you’re not writing in your own natural, authentic voice.

Brenda Euland advises, ” Try to discover your true, honest, untheoretical self.”

How to do it? Just get a prompt, set the timer and let ‘er rip. You’ll clean it up later, but what you might discover in that messy draft on the page is your own beautiful, authentic, original voice.

Make Your Own Joyful Noise

Everyone has at least one strong, beautiful, perfectly learned voice and if you use that voice with utter abandon and confidence, good writing happens. Why? Because it’s authentic. Writing in this voice is not something you have to learn. Your voice is already there and it’s unique because you are unique.

This voice is the place you come from, the language you learned at the kitchen table, in the back yard and surrounded by family. Your authentic voice is attitude, geography and history. Grace Paley said, “If you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends, you’ll probably say something beautiful.”

Sometimes it may seem the more we learn about the craft of writing, the more difficult the act becomes. In trying to get it “right,” we lose the lovely, imaginative voice that comes naturally and write in a voice that is not our own. Writing becomes work. This is where so many writers become discouraged and quit.

Please don’t do that.

Come back to your own native voice. No one knows that language as perfectly as you know it. Allow it to take over and talk through you and onto your page. “Write freely, recklessly, in first drafts,” Brenda Ueland told us.

Our aim as writers is to refine and strengthen our voice, to explore the terrain of our natural language, to discover its peaks and valleys, its sounds and the silence between sounds. Our job is to write and rewrite until what we have written resonates with what is authentic and true.

Remember as you go to your writing, no one else can tell the stories you have to tell and no one else can write them in the voice that is uniquely and authentically your own.

This piece was written for UCSD Extension’s “Enrich Yourself” brochure. I’ll be teaching three workshops at Extension this fall. Find out more here.