I want to suck out your ghost and kiss you with your ether still on my lips.
I want to bury you with golden seeds on your eyes, so that you re-emerge in a new world where everything once shrouded now beams with bright light.
I want to embrace you from the inside, warm hands fused to your spine.
That’s how I want my writing to feel when you read it.
How am I supposed to make you feel that?
With my voice.
We all use the same words to write, but the way that we rearrange them is why a person prefers one writer over another. It’s why one writer sings, and another crumbles into history forgotten. It’s why one writer may resonate with you, while another you don’t really mesh with. Voice is one of the most difficult things to teach (perhaps impossible) and cultivates in writing, but it’s also one the most important.
Although a voice is something that takes years to develop, and is an ongoing work, there are a few things you can do to cultivate it, and begin to make it more defined.
Many people who haven’t developed a writing voice simply haven’t written enough yet. Keep in mind that developing a voice is a high-level skill and it will only begin to emerge after hundreds and hundreds of hours of keyboard work. The reason that Art 101 starts with the tedious task of drawing bowls of fruit is because people must first learn technique before they can learn style. The same with music. Voice is just a manipulation of technique to create different results, and the best way to learn how to manipulate technique is to master it.
I’ve heard before that you need to write a million words to be truly ready to be published. It may just be an arbitrary number, but there is truth in that you need to write, and a lot, to find your voice. For me, I began to really find my voice in college, after writing a short story called “Sunshine, Sunshine,” which is in my short story collection. But that came after writing stories for years. It was the combination between a lot of writing, synergy, and a transistion of emotions.
I like this quote from Willa Cather:
I believe every young writer must write whole books of extravagant language to get it out. It is agony to be smothered in your own florescence, and to be forced to dump great cartloads of your posies out in the road before you find that one posy that will fit in the right place…”
Be Comfortable Being Bold
Learning how to write like yourself is terrifying.
It sounds silly. After all, you’re sitting down to write a book, not trudging off to war. You’re putting words on paper, not base-jumping or wrestling sharks.
But writing is an examination of the self and the soul. You’re taking your innermost thoughts and allowing them to be put on display for other people to read, digest, criticize, and dissect.
I think many times people stick to writing safe things because they’re afraid. But in that place, it’s difficult to allow voice to grow. You might wonder if you have permission to write the things that you’re writing. You wonder what your friends and family will think when they read “the real you.” You might feel like you don’t want to look at the weird, strange, and awful places in your psyche.
But safe writing often feels flat. It lacks color. It’s got a monochromatic palette. Safe writing rarely takes risks, and it’s in the really crazy stunts that you begin to gain a footing for what
The first thing you must overcome if you truly want to write like yourself is to confront that fear head-on. And oftentimes it’ll feel uncomfortable. When I first started writing The Crooked God Machine, I often found myself mouthing “What the fuck” and laughing nervously to myself. I thought that what I was writing was so absurd that it was possible nobody would like it. But I was also having fun. I wrote the book with passion. And it’s in The Crooked God Machine that my true voice began to really emerge, because for the first time I was writing a book with real abandon and energy.
A sign that you’re going in the right direction when you write is that you feel fear. You feel anxiety. You feel like maybe you should turn back. Although I don’t often feel it anymore, I used to be terrified that people I knew would find my work and read it. But I pressed forward on anyway, because it was in that uncomfortable place that I found real growth in my voice and style. It was in that place that what I wrote rang true to me.
Your true writing voice begins where your fear begins. It will emerge in the space where you allow yourself to overcome the anxiety of having your work read and judged by others.
Recognize That Nobody Else Can Help You Find Your Voice
Writing is a lonely business. Recognize that it’s up to you to find your voice, and although you can have mentors who may be able to help you coax out those unique parts of you, for the most part, you’re on your own. Voice is idiosyncratic, so how you’re going to find it is probably also idiosyncratic. Here’s a quote from Eudora Welty about the subject:
“Since we must and do write each in our own way, we may during actual writing get more lasting instruction not from another’s work, whatever its blessings, however better it is than ours, but from our own poor scratched-over pages. For these we can hold up to life. That is, we are born with a mind and heart to hold each page up to and to ask: Is it valid?”
Reimagine Old Stories
One exercise to help find your writing voice is to take a fable or old fairy-tale, and rewrite it. Envision it in your style. Take old tropes, like vampires or werewolves, and see if you can give them a fresh take. We are just unique combinations of the same building blocks of the universe, after all. What makes us unique isn’t the content, it’s the reconstitution. And taking a story that’s been rehashed over and over again will help you find a fresh perspective not only on old content but on your own, because it’ll help you narrow in on what aspects of a story are important to you. Using an old trope, like the vampire, and trying to make it fresh, is difficult because there has been so many different takes. This exercise will force you to think of things from a unique perspective from many angles.
Look Around Your Room
Your voice is everywhere. It’s in the clothes that you choose to wear, the colors you surround yourself with, your decorations, food choices, sleep habits, music, video games, the kinds of website you choose to visit. Even if your style is “no style,” that’s still a choice. It’s a reflection of you. What words would you use to describe about yourself? How do you want others to perceive you? What do you value the most? Even if you’ve never consciously voiced these things aloud, they are still informing your day to day decisions.
Your voice already exists inside of you. It’s just waiting to be cultivated through discipline and work so that it comes out through your writing.
I am always surprised at the amount of people who love one genre, but write in another because they feel it’s more accessible. Or they desire to write something, but are afraid it won’t sell, so hold off. Or write “commercial” fiction that’s bone-dry. Or write things that they themselves find boring! If it bores you when you’re writing it, then it probably isn’t going to excite anyone reading it!
So forget about what you’re “supposed” to write. What do you actually want to write?
(If writing doesn’t excite you and you’re just doing it to get laid, then you might want to rethink that plan and become a musician or something.)
What is your favorite genre?
What excites you?
What are the things you read that make you hunger for more human experience?
What books make you feel alive? (Music, books, and games can be in here too)
What kind of stories do you find yourself drawn to?
That’s the kind of book you should aspire to write. That’s the voice that you should chase after with hunger. Anything less is just not going to sustain you.
Recognize That the Search for Voice is Eternal
Back in 2014, I’d gotten into a writing slump. I had honed in on my voice and mythos with such lightning precision, but after a certain point I felt I wasn’t writing an Autumn Christian novel, but a parody of one. The problem was that my writing voice no longer matched my current mood and experience, so it’d begun to feel disingenuous.
What I needed to do was expand my mythology. Not to keep writing the same things over and over again, but to broaden the scope of my pantheon.
I was tired of writing nihilistic horror where everyone was doomed. I wanted to write stories in which hope prevailed. Stories in which it was possible to have warm relationships. Stories that were alive and vibrant.
I started writing things that weren’t entirely horror. I was at that point sick of horror, so I began to experiment with other genres. (I have a fantastical/literary novel coming out later this all.) I also experimented with different characters, as I’d gotten comfortable writing several different tropes.
Every groove I found, every rut I’d created, I tried to dig myself out of and create new pathways.
It was a bloody, painful ritual, and only three years later am I beginning to feel like I’m writing in stride again. But voice was never meant to be a thing that was found once. It was meant to be found again and again.
The concept of you as a human being is not a static one. You are a continuum that exists from birth to death, and you are always changing. Although in general your core personality traits remain the same throughout your life, many parts of you change. Your tastes, experiences, and values will not be the same from year to year.
So is the same with your voice. Since your voice is a reflection of you, it too will constantly change. Sometimes you’ll find that what you once found resonated with you no longer does. The solution is to shift so that your voice grows with you. If you recognize that you will always have to search for the truth of your writing self, then you will continuously be looking for ways in which to better express yourself, and recognize when disingenuity sneaks its way into your words.
You Just Do
Over the course of living your life, you are creating a human being that has a unique combination of experiences nobody else has had. That’s not something you have to try to do, it’s just something that happens. You can cultivate yourself as an individual to become more worldly, more refined, more productive – but you will always be a unique individual.
If you continue to write, your voice will probably begin to emerge without much direction or guidance, because of the mere fact that you are you, and nobody else.Related posts
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