Like many creative writers, I began writing as soon as I could scribble pencil marks onto scraps of paper. Words have always been a source of magic for me. I can hear and feel the tone, voice, and taste of words in my mouth as I speak them and in my ears as I hear them. Words have meaning for me in a way that is figurative, symbolic, and spiritual. And I think that is true for many, if not most, creative writers.
Finding my creative voice was never a consideration in my younger years as a writer. At 12, I never stopped myself mid poem and asked “I wonder if I’ve found my creative voice yet.” But by the time I was in college, my creative voice, its presence or absence, weighed heavily on my mind.
At the time, it seemed to me that I should have already established myself as a writer with a particular voice, a voice that is easily distinguishable from all other writers so that a competent reader would recognize my voice three words into reading any piece.
In my college courses, we talked a lot about a writer’s voice, how Eudora Welty’s voice was distinct from Flannery O’Connor’s voice, and hers was distinct from William Faulkner’s voice, and so on. When I read, I could see voice. I could feel voice. I could taste and touch and smell voice. Finding another writer’s voice came as naturally for me as finding my toothbrush, because the location was always the same.
And marvelously, that voice is no more stagnant than I am; it changes over time and will continue to change as I produce more work, but the voice is still mine—twisted, surprising, a touch of science fiction, a touch of thriller, and always an insight into injustice.
So, where did the voice come from? How did I get it? And how did I get to a place where I could verbalize what it is? Easy enough.
The only way to know one’s creative voice is to write and write and write. I know you have heard that advice a zillion times. King said it. Bradbury said it. Welty said it. All the greats said it—you have to write to be a writer, you have to write to have a voice, and you have to write to know your voice.
And whad’ya know, they were right. Every one of them.
The problem is that current western society sends a pretty clear message to artists, which goes a little like this. Listen, writer. You can be considered valuable if, and only if, you write a novel that makes a publishing company a bazillion dollars, is made into a blockbuster movie, and spurs the manufacture of every bit of plastic paraphernalia from action figures to phone covers to mouse pads. Otherwise, you’re a waste of time.
I think at some point, all of us have heard the message in some form or another, whether it was directed at us personally, at a writer we admire, or at creatives generally. Miserably, western society seems convinced that only that which is commercially profitable is socially valuable, but nothing could be further from the truth.
That separation of cultural value from writers causes us to question our worth, wonder if we are writing something worth reading, and what we are writing at all. This is the type of malarkey that causes emerging writers to doubt their significance, their messages, and their voices.
So, how does an emerging creative writer establish oneself with confidence in a clear, certain voice?
1. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write.
You cannot be a writer if you do not write. This is an absolute truth of the universe. Write every day. If you cannot write every day, write often: every other day, once a week, twice a month. Find a way to write. For pity’s sake, get those words written onto the page.
2. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read.
You cannot write something worth reading if you do not read. Read every day. Every day. If you lack the time to read, then put an audio book app on your phone and listen to books, get the New York Times on your phone so you can read articles while sitting on the bus, or have your local newspaper delivered to your home so that you have reading material readily available for 20 minutes after dinner each night. Read.
3. Explore different styles of writing.
How do you know that you still hate write sonnets if you haven’t tried to compose one in 15 years? Try out different writing styles. Explore. Push yourself. You will not improve as a writer if you do not find your boundaries and challenge yourself to push beyond them.
4. Read genres that aren’t immediately appealing to you.
I once thought that I hated science fiction for two reasons: my favorite college professor called science fiction “shit fiction” and vilified anyone who read it, and I believed that only pimply, uber-geek adolescent teenage boys who had no chance of going to the prom read science fiction.
I was wrong. I was desperately wrong. Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Madeleine L’Engle taught me how horribly wrong I was. Give every genre a fair shake. Your voice may be hiding where you did not expect it.
5. Play with the creative process
Many writers suggest that their first drafts are a long purging of a creative mass of heavily-worded nonsense, and during the editing process is where they pull away the unnecessary words and cut that original draft by 10-20% before finding their final draft. I tried this same process for ages. I tried it because King recommended it as did a committee of learned, professional writers.
It was not until I gave up this plan and found that my creative writing process is the opposite did I find my voice. Instead of cutting away, I layer a story. First I write down the bones. Then I layer the muscles. Then I layer the connective tissues. Then I layer the skin.
For me, the editing process is not a cycle of removing but a cycle of adding. I add details, imagery, sensual observations, and figurative language. My first draft is a naked skeleton, and I had to experiment with the creative process for two decades before I had fully realized that truth.
So, if you are searching for your creative writing voice, or you are searching for confirmation of your voice, or you are searching for confidence within your own voice, take heed. Write. Read. Explore. Your voice is already there. You are just working to define it.
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