The Mystery of Voice

Once upon a time I attempted to figure out the mystery of voice. I had been in and out of writer’s groups and conferences and reference materials and I stumbled on the notion of voice. My writing voice. What was it? What genre did it fit best within? How could I be true to my voice while continuing to grow as a writer?

I turned to an author and teacher who I admired and enrolled in a six week online course on discovering voice. A friend had previously taken this course and raved at how it helped her determine her voice, which helped to determine the direction her writing would take. I wanted that confidence so I signed up for the next offering and learned…not a lot.

That’s not quite true. I learned that my voice has a poetic cadence. I learned that I cannot mimic someone else’s writing voice to save my life. Which is probably a good thing. I learned that I was confused about voice and how several of the exercises related to a writer’s storytelling voice. I felt rather slow. I hate feeling like I just can’t get something.

Upon finishing the course, all the attendees were invited to a private email loop for all the writers who had ever taken the course. There were continuing exercises and discussion related to writing voice. I participated in several. It wasn’t earth shattering, but it was nice to have little exercises where I could write and be myself. It was also a great place for some ego boosting. Come on, you all know that there are points in time when we need a good ego boost. We are feeling low and discouraged and we need a reminder of what is true. This group did that. The author/teacher disbanded the group a year later. I miss it every day.

I was cleaning up email the other day and I found all the emails I had kept from both the course and the group. I read through them all, wondering if years later I could finally grasp that elusive concept of voice. I know I don’t have it all, but right now, voice is the feel of the writing. The word choices. The cadence. The rhythm. It’s how we tell our stories. I’m an intuitive person. I intuitively make my word choices. I can’t tell you why I make any one choice over another. I just…do.

Below are two exercises from this exploration of voice experience. The first is a timed writing about the topic of a first kiss.  I had five minutes to write, and I fictionalized my very first kiss experience. I wrote it more like an memoir than a story.

Todd was tall and gangly, with a greasy face, an eager smile and a shock of red hair that amused me. I was sixteen when we met at my cousin’s house, visiting my relatives in Victoria, and Todd intrigued me. I had not had a boyfriend. I was blissfully unencumbered and loving life as a woman who did what she pleased when she pleased. Okay, as a teen who finally had the keys to her father’s car.
Over dinner, Todd shyly flirted. His attempts were almost laughable, but I was feeling generous and he was trying. He listened to my young feminist self talk about why it was stupid for women to shave and why we were the smarter, more intelligent sex. He laughed at my jokes and he wasn’t scared away when I announced that I was going to run the country some day. Looking back, I think he was either in shell shock or saw me for the mark I was. I was so sure of myself, so certain that I could control any male who came near me. I knew they all wanted one thing. sex, and I was in control now of when and how I would give that. Or if I would. I was sixteen and I was free. Or so I thought.
We went walking after dinner, down the dark, treelined road. The moon wasn’t up and the stars were wild pin pricks in the sky. Todd’s arm settled on my shoulders and I felt powerful. So I stopped and looked at him and asked him if he wanted to kiss me. Like an eager puppy, his eyes widened and his hand shook, almost violently. I walked my fingers up his chest in the way I had seen the Femme Fatals in the movies dance their hands across the chest of the man they were about to ensnare. My hand curved around his neck, tugged at the hair at his nape and my smile deepened as his breathing caught. On tiptoe, I settled my lips on his and kissed him, my tongue gently caressing his lips, my mouth exerting a little pressure. I thought I was working magic. The rise in his jeans told me I was working something.
Then, before his arms could come to life and touch me, before he could use his mouth on mine, I pulled away and started walking again.

There is more to that story. Pieces of the tale colored with anger, violence, and shame. Still, as I read this snippet, I see my earnest, over-confident self. I can feel that night. I can also sense that things are about to turn very, very wrong. I don’t know what the writing of this says about my voice.

This second exercise was one of the impromptu ones that were tossed out on the voice class alumni loop. It’s a timed writing, again. I don’t remember how long we were to write. We were to answer the questions “What in this moment what frightens you?” and “What in this moment excites you?” I remember at the time of the writing that there was nothing that excited me. I was plagued with doubt. When it comes to my passions, I’m often plagued with doubt. It’s a theme in my life I’m working on. I want to change my narrative and live in hope and joy. But on this day I didn’t feel like it was ever going to happen. I was never going to be big enough to live my big dreams.

When I shared my fears I wasn’t expecting feedback. I wasn’t expecting anything. In fact, I regretted hitting send once I wrote it.

What happened was something that spoke to that terrified writer within me. I have these snippets printed out and pasted them by my computer. These have pulled me through whenever I’m too much in my head. The last one, that’s the one I read to myself most often.
I can’t help with the security angle, but I can assure you that you are most certainly a writer, and all you have to do is let it fly. Wonderful post.
I echo Barbara’s sentiment — you are a writer! Reading your post, I heard the keys click beneath fingers, the low conversational buzz. You brought me into your world which is the hallmark of a writer, isn’t it?
What a cool post you did on Barbara’s loop!  I just read it.  With every word you used to question whether you’re a writer, you actually *proved* you’re a writer.  Powerful stuff.  Way to go!
Whoo-wee, girl!  That’s a lowdown secret sly and fancy voice thang you got goin’ on!  That’s one of my rewards! Your voice — I want more of that! I often think others can describe our voice(s) more accurately than we do ourselves.  So sure, use my description as you see fit!  I’d love to know I helped you get a deal, sell a mss., launch a career.  Or just blather.  Not that I believe you blather.  You got that lowdown secret sly and fancy voice thang!
I agree. I think we need to rely on others to describe our voices more accurately than we can ourselves. Lowdown secret sly and fancy voice thang. Never in a million years would have used those words to describe my writing voice. But dayum! I read those words and something inside me loosens and I know with everything that is within me that I can be big enough to live me dreams. Hell, I AM big enough. So what if I can’t pinpoint my writing voice. The point is that I write. And that I’m true to myself. Isn’t that the point for all of us?

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