The cat woke me up around 5:30am, howling for breakfast. Cali has quite a quiver of resonant sounds in her repertoire. When we are gone and return, she delivers a sonorous soliloquy as we try to get settled in. She can purr like a mis-firing Harley Davidson, too. I try to mimic her murmurings, as if she is teaching me to speak "feline." No other cat that I have owned or known has the vocabulary of this calico creature. Cali, who chose us as her "people" almost 12 years ago (she's 15 now) has entertained us, tortured us, and she has inspired me.
There is a new picture book in the works because of her, but that is not the topic of this post... What I'm talking about is voice.
Voice is the invisible ingredient that glues story together. Without voice, your writing is dry and technical, or possibly gibberish, unless you can find a creative way to tell a story in gibberish. I hear over and over again (and I have said this a few times, too) that you can't teach voice. You either have a unique voice, or you don't.
I really don't believe that. One of my favorite quotes is from composer Harry Partch:
"Originality cannot be a goal. It is simply inevitable. The truly pathbreaking step cannot be predicted, and certainly not by the person who makes it at the time he makes it. He clears as he goes, evolves his own techniques, devises his own tools, ignores where he must. And his path cannot be retraced, because each of us is an original being."
We all do have a unique voice, a unique perspective, a unique DNA. We just don't always trust it.
I hear voices. In my head. I hear them on the street. I hear them when I read. If you want to write, you have to become aware of voices. That doesn't make you schizophrenic.
How do you define voice? This is the general description you'll find on the internet:
Voice is the author's style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author's attitude, personality, and character; or
Voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of a first-person narrator; a persona. Because voice has so much to do with the reader's experience of a work of literature, it is one of the most important elements of a piece of writing.
Doesn't really help, does it?
Yes, style is a large part of it. Yes, speech and its' cadences are indispensable. But how do you do it? You know, find that voice?
Like Harry said, we are all original and we will all follow our own paths, but sometimes it's good to have a trail map, even if it's over-grown and you have to bushwhack.
What helps me, quite honestly, is walking. I walk. Long walks. My characters talk to me in my head. They have rich conversations. When I get home, I write them down. I also love the shower. Repetitive motion like washing oneself, or cleaning- seems to get my head off in character-land. I've said I should keep a voice recorder in the shower... but I don't like saying these things out loud. They live in my imagination and then get transferred to my journal. I will read them aloud when they are typed into the word document and then I listen for fluidity, cadence, word choice, structure, etc...
I also see a very close tie between acting and voice. I'm not saying you need to audition for plays, but you do need to be able to play- "in character" in order to understand the nature of voice. Be your character. If it helps, pick a hat. What hat would your narrator wear? Set the stage to help you stay in the mood. Choose your tools.
Maybe it would help the voice if you typed on a typewriter... or used a feather quill while outlining... I know a writer who prefers a typewriter because you can't edit while you are writing. You just have to keep moving forward. You can edit later.
I also have to admit that in order to stay "pure" in my attention to the voice I am focusing on, I feed my brain a healthy diet. That diet includes no TV. Yep. Sorry. That's how it is for me. I read. I read books. I read the newspaper in the morning, although I will go through periods of no news, too. I watch DVD's- but not regularly. I am woefully behind on all current films. I do check in with my "peeps" on Facebook, but I curse the day I joined. It's a time-suck for sure. I don't Twitter or Tweet. I prefer natural birdsong and long treasure hunts for agates or mushrooms. My iPhone is used as a phone and a camera. That's it. I don't game. I spend hours cooking- also a great time to talk in my head- and relish dinner conversation with friends- in face and body, not on screen.
This is by no means the direct line into finding your voice. This is just what works for me. I thought I would share it so that when you hear that strange conversation in your head, you won't dismiss it, you'll invite it to stay and sit back (or keep walking) and enjoy the story.
Then write it down before it gets lost in the cacophony of daily living.
I would love to hear your thoughts about voice, too.