One concept writing-program instructors love to discuss, in lieu of craft, which might better serve their students, is voice. It seems absurd to do so because voice is the one thing one cannot teach in writing, and when discussing it, instructors tend to address it in the most abstract, bordering-on-mystical, of terms. Despite this, one can actually learn voice.
To preface, we should note that every writer—from the worst potboiler hack to the most elegant of literary stylists—has a voice. It comes from a combination of word choice and preferred sentence structures, which together produce a distinctive tone, cadence, and rhythm. It’s that combined trio of elements that we call a writer’s voice. We can actually hear this quality best when we read aloud the works of any given writer. Read aloud a paragraph of James Baldwin and a paragraph of Kurt Vonnegut, one after the other, and the differences between the two become obvious.
Take this passage from Baldwin’s essay “The Harlem Ghetto,” from his book Notes of a Native Son:
“Harlem, physically at least, has changed very little in my parent’s lifetime or in mine. Now as then the buildings are old and in desperate need of repair, the streets are crowded and dirty, and there are too many human beings per square block. Rents are 10 to 58 percent higher than anywhere else in the city; food, expensive everywhere, is more expensive here and of an inferior quality; and now that the war is over and money is dwindling, clothes are carefully shopped for and seldom bought. Negroes, traditionally the last to be hired and the first to be fired, are finding jobs harder to get, and, while prices are rising implacably, wages are going down.” (Baldwin, 59)
Now, compare that to Vonnegut’s essay “I turned eighty-two on November 11th” from his book A Man Without a Country:
“I turned eight-two on November 11, 2004. What’s it like to be this old? I can’t parallel park worth a damn anymore, so please don’t watch while I try to do it. And gravity has become a lot less friendly and manageable than it used to be. When you get to my age, if you get to my age, and if you have reproduced, you will find yourself asking your own children, who are themselves middle-aged, “What is life all about?” I have seven kids, three of them orphaned nephews.
“I put my big question about life to my son the pediatrician. Dr. Vonnegut said this to his doddering old dad, “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”” (Vonnegut, 65-66)
Can you hear the difference? It’s there, of course, whether you can detect it or not, rather like the difference between two different musical keys. But why is that so?
Both are American writers, after all. Both use the same language, 20th Century American English. Both are of the same generation, with only two years difference in their ages. Yet, their voices are wholly distinctive. This raises a question: why are they so different and how did they get that way? The simple answer is they were different people, who despite their common nationality and language, came from different backgrounds and had different reasons for writing. A brief look at each of Baldwin’s and Vonnegut’s respective Wikipedia pages can inform one of this.
No two writers have the same voice because no two writers write in the same fashion. No two writers have the same voice because no two write from the same perspective, the attitude or lens through which they view and interpret the world. No two writers have the same voice because no two writers have the same preoccupations and motivations for putting words down on the page. Once one acknowledges this simple fact, the concept of voice becomes more tangible. The question remains, however, of how does one find and develop one’s voice.
The true answer is there is no one way to find one’s voice. If there were, MFA programs would figure it out and codify it in their curriculum. Then every person who wanted to be a writer would attend a program, and after two or three years (depending, of course, on the rigor of the coursework), the head of the program would issue you a special, official certificate, shake your hand, and say, “Congratulations, you’re a writer.” Then you’d be free to ply your trade, without fear or self-doubt. Sadly, though writing is a craft and a trade, there’s no trade school program for it.
One of the ways—though it isn’t the only way—in which young writers can begin developing their voice is through writing in a form we all learn in our school days: the personal essay.
Many people groan when someone utters the word essay. By the time we’ve all completed our high school years our teachers have forced us to write at least a million words in essays and class papers. This very form is often what defeats any impulse in many to write anything beyond social media posts, text messages, and the occasional email for the rest of their lives. It’s not the form’s fault, however. The fault lies with what teachers—compelled by school curriculums—subject students to with the form: to write things they don’t care about in an objective, sanitized manner.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only person whose middle school English teacher told him to avoid putting any of his own viewpoints into the papers I wrote. This extended to usage of the very word I itself. Your perspective did not matter; all that mattered was the facts, arranged in the most compelling order to make your argument. Exacerbating this was the rigid blue print hammered into potential young writers at an early age, better known as the five-paragraph essay.
This formula is memorable. First would come the Introduction, where the author would introduce (hint, hint), the thesis, the core argument and subject of the piece in question. A minimum of three body paragraphs followed, where the author makes their case by introducing supporting evidence and explaining how their evidence bolsters their claim. Finally, there was the conclusion, which serves as a reiteration of the original argument.
In this blue print’s defense, it’s only supposed to act as a starting point, a foundation upon which one can build one’s writing skill. It also serves as a good guideline to teach students how to marshal their evidence and organize their thoughts in the best manner to make their points. Yet, with how school systems expect teachers to teach this form, they present it as the one and only manner in which one can compose an essay. This approach to the teaching of writing is what creates that distain for the very act. When one’s told that one’s perspective, one’s voice, doesn’t matter, this is understandable. However, if one can break free of these old, imposed habits and reintroduce subjectivity into their work, the probability that one will develop their own writing voice sharply increases.
This is why I use the term personal essay, rather than simply essay. While the former might appear to be a mere subcategory of the latter (which it technically is), it also places emphasis on subjectivity, on the perspective of the author—what they are interested in, are enthusiastic about, or feel is important. It is through this form that a young writer might begin to cultivate their voice on the page.
The essay is one of the purest forms of writing, in terms of direct communication between writer and reader. Although it can act as the carrier of a narrative, it lacks the other invented accruements of fiction, like plot, setting, and characterization. While it also might possess language as beautiful as any poem, it doesn’t have to contend with poetry’s other qualities as overtly, such as meter, form, and rhyme. The point of an essay is simply to relay or convey something to a reader in the clearest possible manner. In other words, you the writer are talking to the reader. When a potential new writer is able to shed the influence of their teachers and begin writing, not for a grade, but (and I’m aware of how cheesy this may sound), for themselves, their voice can emerge.
Why the personal essay, though? Why not stick with writing diaries or letters? Isn’t that also a writer’s voice?
This is true, and those too can act as keys to discovering one’s voice, as the writing in those forms is also a form of direct communication. However, writers don’t write diaries or letters for a mass audience to read them. The reading audience for a diary is the diarist themselves, and the reading audience for a letter is typically a recipient. In both cases (though not always, in the case of letters), the audience is one person. To write for a larger audience, an unfamiliar audience separate from one’s self and one’s intimates, entails taking that voice, that personal perspective and putting it out into the world for others to read.
When one writes a personal essay in particular, a writer is essentially sitting a reader down for a conversation. Reading is an activity, implying that a reader must be an active participant in the experience, so what they bring is their own perspective to interact with that of the writer. A writer introduces a topic, something they feel people need to explore in greater depth. George Orwell, one of Anglophone Literature’s greatest essayists, recorded in “Why I Write,” that when he sat down to write anything, he did so because, “There is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” Note the urgency to that statement, and the importance he places on the desire to say something. He wrote because he felt there was something of such great personal importance to him that maybe—writers, being empathetic individuals by nature—it could be important to others. Thus, we must share what we feel is important.
Ray Bradbury famously said that writers should, “Love what they write, and write what they love.” In a 2001 Lecture, he gave people a practical means of doing this. He said, “Make a list of ten things you love, madly, and write about them.” He followed that with, “Make a list of ten things you hate, and kill them.” The purpose of this exercise isn’t to produce something one might publish (that comes later), but to get in touch with one’s own perspective. So, consider making a list of ten things you absolutely love, things you love so much that all you want to do is share them with the world. Write an essay proclaiming why you love this movie, that book, this TV show, or that YouTube channel. The basis of most of what Tom Wolfe (another great essayist), called the “Blogosphere,” emerged from this very idea. If you of a slightly more acerbic temperament—as the writer H.L. Menken was—then take that list of ten things you loath and explain why. One by one, go through that list and discuss why you hate this politician, that album, this televisual talking-head, or that reality series. Own your loves and your hates and bask in them like a snake sunning itself on a rock.
On a craftsmen’s level, growing comfortable speaking in the first-person on the page is also useful. Without the need to tailor you own voice, to achieve that sanitized objective tone school papers always called for, a writer can get a sense of their own rhythm and cadence. One can learn exactly what sort of vocabulary, or diction, for which one instinctively reaches. Do you prefer direct and lucid language, or are you someone who favors words that send readers running for their Thesauruses? Along with that comes knowledge of one’s preferred sentence structures. Do you find yourself writing sentences reminiscent of Orwell or Hemingway (brief and blunt)? Or, are you perhaps a writer who dots their sentence with commas, em dashes, and semi-colons because they pack so many clauses and gerunds in them? These are crucial pieces of self-knowledge to possess for any would-be wordsmith. If one were to make the leap beyond personal essay writing, say into the world of prose fiction, having knowledge of what your own writing voice sounds like can help you when creating fictional characters.
Say, for instance, you wish to write a first-person short story. However, you do not want to write a first-person short story narrated by a character that resembles you. If you’re the sort of writer who has a decent grip on what their own prose voice sounds like, you can then modify it to make it sound less like you and more like the character. Say your character is rather taciturn, but they also happen to have a rather high-flown vocabulary when they choose to employ it. How would you write their internal monologue compared to how you write their dialogue? I image you’d have some rather high-diction laden description and narration, but their dialogue remains rather sparse. Knowing one’s voice will better enable you to make these modifications, thus deepening the verisimilitude needed for your story.
We should also keep in mind one final detail. As a writer, one’s voice is always in flux. As much as appreciators and critics of art—writing, of course, also being an art—would love for us to believe it is truly possible to separate the art and the artist, it’s not possible. As the artist changes and grows as a person, so too will their voice change and grow. Sometimes, the changes are positive, and sometimes they’re not. We can’t keep this from happening. It’s as inevitable as the passage of night into day and vice versa. We can only try to make sure to aim our progressions and projections as people upward, towards that vague notion of “becoming better.”
In the end, the way in which one develops one’s voice isn’t through some strange mystical experience. Whether it’s through the pure communication of the personal essay form, or through another writing form, there remains only one way to learn to write. The only true school for writing, as it is with any craft, is the act itself; as Ray Bradbury said, time and again, “You learn to write by writing.” Practice. Try, fail, and try again. The more one writes, the more confidence one gains at performing the act. The more confidence one gains, the stronger and more defined one’s voice will become.