I was thinking of the issue of “voice” in writing recently: you know, your writing voice, that whiff of brimstone or reverberant cello note or cracked teeth and swollen tongue that stamps your writing as having been issued from you alone. You’d never mistake Donald Barthelme for Ernest Hemingway; the word blossoms gathered in Virginia Woolf’s garden would have flowers not found in the window-box plantings of Joan Didion. So your writing and your writing voice shouldn’t be confused with Schlomo Bierbaum’s—it should be yours alone.
One of the things that made me think of a person’s voice was a literal voice: a few months ago I saw Ricki Lee Jones in concert, and was so struck by her uniqueness as a performer (and possibly as a person). She was cuckoo and mesmerizing in the best of ways on stage: banging on the roof of the piano, exhorting the other players, talking to them in asides during some songs. She played a lunatic version of Don’t Fear the Reaper(!), beating out a slapclap on the top of her piano. The performance was so Rikki Lee Jones: singular, eccentric, passionate, moody. You wanted to be around her just to see what she might do or say (or sing) next. Her voice was hers and hers alone.
Your Writing Voice Is There for the Singing
When you’re developing your writing voice, you might be so painstakingly wrapped up in expressing yourself JUST SO that you drain the blood out of your writing, pull the plug on the electricity of your ideas. You might have read an essay by Pico Iyer or a story by Alice Munro or a novel by Cormac McCarthy and you might be trying so hard to source and employ the rhythms, humors and tics of those gifted writers that you spill onto the page a fridge full of half-opened condiments that cancel each other’s flavors.
Be yourself behind the pen, be the channel between what cooks in your brain and what courses through the keyboard. Even if that self is one day the grinning jester and another the sentimental fool, be fully that person, unmasked, on the page. Maybe you grew up in a slum in Mumbai or have pied-à-terres in every European capital, maybe your adolescence was a thing of constant pain, maybe you never made a wrong move, maybe you never moved at all—it should be in your writing, whether in its proclamations or its subtext. Your voice is all the Crayons in your box.
A Voice, and Its Chorus
Of course it’s no monotone: Sometimes I might write about Sisyphus and sometimes I might write about drool (and sometimes I might speculate whether Sisyphus drooled while pushing the rock up that endless hill). By that I mean your short stories might have a female narrators, male narrators, be set in a tiny town one time and in a howling metropolis the next. But you still must find the voice—your voice—for that story.
I like to write essays that often take a humorous slant, but at the same time, that isn’t the limit or restriction I put on my own expression. I published a piece on not knowing my father, and another that discusses (among other things) never finding out what happened to my high school girlfriend after she vanished in Colombia, and both had a tone of pathos. That pensive tone is also one of my voices, and its sobriety doesn’t cancel the chiming of my comic voice. So your voice might be part of a choir.
Getting Gritty About Grammar
A friend of mine who is putting together a “private university” recently asked me if I would teach a 16-session class on grammar, because of what she perceives as the lamentable state of comprehension of language structures and their underpinnings among the young. Now I could probably do a decent job of that, though I’d definitely have to brush up on some grammar formalities and its seemingly obscurantist vocabulary. But after thinking about it, I decided that it just wasn’t right for me. It wouldn’t be an expression of my voice, like teaching a class on writing an essay or developing a character would be.
The tools are important indeed, but the authentic voice is transcendent.