Monday, August 3, 2009

More on Writer's Voice

If you haven't read Jack Ross's rant in the previous post, do so now. He has an interesting take on the topic of writer's voice. He first acknowledges common descriptions of writer's voice as a writer's literary fingerprint or personal writing style. He remarks that many creative writing courses emphasize the importance of finding one's voice. This is what concerns him, and is the main focus of his rant.

Essentially, he points out that going on a quest to "find one's voice" is counterproductive; it will have precisely the opposite of the desired effect and will yield writing that is bland and twice chewed over. Instead of navel gazing and fretting about how one appears to others (I am taking liberties with my paraphrasing here), he instructs writers to focus on what they want to write about, and to be aware of who their readers are. He cites portions of an essay written by Kathy Acker, who describes the quest for writer's voice as akin to wanting to be godlike and control the meanings that can be taken from one's writing -- something that narrows possibilities and puts writing in a cage. In contrast, Acker sees writing as play, and eschews all rules.

I think that Ross and Acker are onto something. In most forms of human endeavor, being overly concerned about how one appears to others and others' opinions about oneself is truly a motivation killer. Just think of the NaNoWriMo mantra -- Get it down on paper. Don't edit. Don't worry about how bad it is. It's just a first draft, so get those words down!

So getting caught up in trying find one's voice in the first place, then trying to replicate it, and worrying what others will think of it does seem like a pointless kind of digression. I mean, how many of us actually are any good at self awareness in the first place? It seems to me that a characteristic writer's voice is something that is easier to notice in others than to observe in oneself.

That said, I *do* pay attention to the tone I am taking in a piece of writing. Moreover, I think that my "writer's voice" varies depending on the kind of writing that I am doing and the way that I position myself in a piece. I write in a variety of different forms and genres -- nonfiction, including scholarly chapters and articles; long fiction; poetry; and life writing/memoir. I think my voice might be quite different across these genres. I don't think that I have one consistent "fingerprint" voice.

Finally, I consciously attend to characters' voices and strive to let them speak for themselves. Character voices differ from my narrator voice (whether omniscient or not). Yet, because they come from me, they are part of my repertoire of voices and registers.

I wonder if the quest for one's unique writer's voice is simply an artifact of creative writing instruction. So many beginning writers start by emulating the style of writers that they admire (and generally they do so badly). So, instructors have to point out not to copy -- "Try to find your own voice," they say. It sounds more palatable than, "Quit copying other writers all the time."

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