Kristen Lamb refers to voice as the God Particle, that enigmatic force holding everything together. It’s the X factor, that thing you can’t quite put your finger on but immediately sense when it’s not there.
I’ve been doing a lot of beta reading lately—still trying to find a core group of writers I really click with—and I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve read that are lacking that one essential ingredient. And it makes me wonder—can voice even be taught? Or must it be captured? Discovered? I wonder about these writers in the real world (you know not sitting behind a computer screen and filtering their personality through tweets and Facebook posts) and I wonder how they sound, how they interact with people—the diction, the body language. They have an essence, a personality. Everyone does. So where is it?
I’ve talked about embracing your defects, about giving yourself permission to indulge in all of those things that make you, you and to not be afraid to incorporate those things into your story. But beyond character development and embracing your own authenticity, it’s essential that every writer learn to embrace their own voice.
If you were inspired to take up writing by a love of reading it can be hard not to want to emulate your favorite writers, to study the greats and adopt their nuances as your own. But these writers you admire are revered for a reason and if you really held a microscope up to what makes them great, I guarantee you’ll find that it all comes down to voice—unique and uninhibited. These trailblazers spurred revelations through fearless individuality, ripping themselves open for all the world to see. And gutted, and raw, and real they were victorious.
With so many people gravitating towards the arts these days, we have to be just as relentless in our pursuit of our own voices and our own identities. Because that’s what sets you apart. Not genre or skill level, not your education, or how well read you are. But your ideas, your emotions, your experiences. All of that needs to be infused into every word you write regardless of how painful, of how frightening. Embrace the discomfort of honesty. That’s where the magic comes from. That’s where the very best pieces of you are lying in wait, ready to be revealed and more importantly shared.
Every time I finish a manuscript, I have this moment of panic where I realize that aspects of the story were much more autobiographical than I’d meant them to be. I see pieces of myself in every character and they’re not always flattering. I discover things about myself that I’m not sure I want to share. I feel exposed and that feels dangerous.
It’s like everything that’s ever happened to me has left this imperceptible shadow that seeps into my story when I’m not looking, divulging things to the reader and to myself without my permission. But if I chose to remove them, to hide those things about myself, even if the reader would never notice, I wouldn’t just be disrupting my voice, I’d be destroying it.
A lot of writers avoid autobiographical pieces because it’s like opening an old wound. It’s painful and it’s scary. But if I could give one piece of advice to writers out there struggling with voice or afraid to infuse too much of themselves into their work, I’d say try writing about yourself. First person. Middle School Diary Style. And whatever you do, don’t censor a single word. Middle School you sure didn’t. Remember what it was like to be so self-indulgent? To not go back and revise? Sure you got a lot of junk that probably made no sense. But you also got the truth. All of it.
That’s all voice really is anyway. So don’t be afraid to pour a little too much of yourself into your characters, to pull from personal experience, to simmer in your own emotions. Don’t be afraid to share moments of self-discovery with your readers and most importantly don’t be afraid to tear yourself open at the seams because that’s the only way you’ll ever be able to stitch yourself into something new.