Finding Your Voice

When 'voice' is there on the page, there's no mistaking it. It comes from the roots of our physical and emotional being.

Tracking The Wild Words

What does it mean to be looking for, or indeed to find ‘your voice’ as writer?

‘Finding your voice’ is bandied about as the gold at the end of the rainbow for emerging writers and storytellers. This is a rather intangible aspect of the craft that allows the reader to recognise the difference between, say, Dickens and Kerouac or Mary Oliver and Jane Austen. It’s a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an authentic expression of who the storyteller is. Part of ‘voice’ involves how the wordsmith uses style and technique, but it is much, much more than that.

The storyteller experiences an emotion> the emotional is transferred into the character or narrator> it is experienced by the reader.  In order to find our voice, what we seek is the most direct line of communication from storyteller, to character, to reader or listener. When, as the storyteller, we can stand steady in the face of a wide breadth of embodied experience, some pleasant and some unpleasant, and communicate that unashamedly to character, and then to reader- then we’ve found our voice.

In ‘non-fiction’ writing ‘voice’ may seem relatively easy to identify, as there will be a voice of narration identified as the storyteller. But because we can only, in the end, write what we know about, ‘voice’ manifests as strongly in fiction. There’s an experiment for you to try this week that looks at those connections.

When we truly function from our holistic, instinctual, wild self, our voice will emerge naturally. The natural storyteller will express what needs to be expressed, using words that do the job, and are not in any way forced.  In a nutshell, the job can be said to be to bring the listener or reader into the lead character’s experience as fully as possible, to take them on a journey, and to allow them to complete the journey.

The Advantages of Finding Your Voice

Author Nina Stibbe spoke at Penzance Literature Festival about the importance of being yourself when you write. As she rightly said, it is much less effort, and it makes you more successful. Like many of us, it took her quite some time to get close.

I spent years trying to sound like someone else.

Speaking in your own voice gives you a direct and profound connection to those you are speaking to. It is that direct line. It is flow.

Stop trying to write or tell a story. Try to get to the point where…in Toni Morrison’s words,

At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough.

Many wordsmiths come to me having written several drafts of a story, but still being unsure how well it is working. Sometimes this is because they haven’t found their voice. Another way of saying that is that they haven’t found what the heart of their story is. They’ve often located the central struggle and tension as between two characters in the story, without seeing how that is a reflection of a struggle going on within themselves.

In finding the heart of the story, the storyteller comes from a more authentic place, and finds their voice. In understanding their personal central struggle, they ease internal tensions which allow them to engage more fully and compassionately with the world. Storytelling can often lead to the completion of a process we need to complete in other aspects of our life, for example in relationships.

Storytellers writing autobiography, sometimes find family members or friends aren’t accepting or appreciative of the content of their writing. Often, if they re-own the journey of their narrator in a more authentic manner, they are received more warmly. If subtle levels of conflict underlie communications, and we write from a place of unprocessed emotions, and lack of awareness around motivations, that is felt by the reader. The bottom line is that when you come from a caged place, you are not heard. That is hugely frustrating, distressing and dispiriting to the storyteller needing to tell their story. When you can say ‘Ah, I see now that it wasn’t you I was angry with, it was that other part of me that behaves a lot like you!’ you are freed, you are wild.

The Fears

In Wild Words work, we look at the fears that underlie the limitations we choose (either consciously or unconsciously) for ourselves. There are so many ways in which we decide not to see all of ourselves and our experience- because it is too frightening, overwhelming, or does not tally with who we, or how others want us to be.  We deceive ourselves, and in that deceit a gap opens up.

People leave out secrets. They protect themselves from showing weakness, arrogance, foolishness, and all the other damning characteristics of an authentic report.
-Erving Polster,  Every Person’s Life is Worth a Novel.

And there is a high price to be paid. Again, in Polster’s words.

Self- deception is the basis of inauthenticity: living that is not based on the truth of oneself in the world leads to feelings of dread, guilt, and anxiety.

The following questions can help to bring into awareness issues around 'voice'.

1. What emotions frighten you because you think you will be overwhelmed, lose control, or go mad?

2. What parts of yourselves have you suppressed or disowned because they are not acceptable in your family or wider community? What aspects of yourself are you embarrassed or ashamed of?  

3. Where are all those parts of yourself now?

-Projected on to other people or the environment?

-Somatised in numb or unwell parts of your body?

-Leaking out, despite your best efforts, in, for example, uncontainable emotion? 

4. Which parts of yourself are not really you? Can you separate out the voices of caregivers and peers that you have absorbed over time?

How Much To Reveal

‘I am afraid to write because I am afraid to tell the truth’.
                                                  -Lili, P.

There’s often a feeling that, in order to be ‘authentic’ we have to reveal everything about ourselves, to open ourselves up completely. That is not true. You can be absolutely authentic in your communication without revealing very personal information. To be authentic is to be wild. To be wild is to survive and thrive in the environment. If we’re going to survive and thrive, we have to take care of ourselves, and make a clear distinction between what is shared and what remains private.

One way to do that is to write fiction.

It is also possible to write an autobiography without revealing everything.  A good example of this is ‘H is for Hawk’. Helen Macdonald writes eloquently and powerfully about the death of her father and how that affects her life, and yet says very little about the family dynamics and tensions. She maintains her privacy whilst being open and authentic in those things she does choose to share.

It is very natural and appropriate that we pause before writing about issues that we fear may hurt those we love. It’s also completely valid to choose not to write about them for that reason. There are many truths in our lives. Not being able, or not wishing to write about some of them, does not preclude us from fully sharing other aspects of our lives. And it does not mean we are being untruthful. Having our secrets and mysteries is important. In its way it is also a form of truth telling, as we’re being true to our own need for privacy. We take care of our emotional selves when we withhold information.

The difficulty can come when we have powerful emotions around a sensitive subject that need expressing. They do then need to be processed. The expression must be contained, so as not to damage our self or another, and so that we feel safe. A piece of paper is a brilliant container for emotion. Others need never see the words. We can set fire to them after we have written them, and watch the ash of the sentiments be taken by the wind. Or, we can make a paper boat of them, and watch them float away. Other options are: to tell difficult truths to a small group of people, for example on a Wild Words course, or, to create fictionalised characters, so that the companions on your life journey are anonymised. 

Protecting others is fine and good, but be open to this idea too. Even if a family secret has been guarded for decades, it may come as a relief to everyone concerned when the cat’s out the bag. How can you shed light on the misunderstandings and miscommunications that go on between people? How can you name the elephant in the room?

Find a balance. Be sensitive to what others care about, but know that it is not your job to protect others. Allow them the dignity of looking after themselves.

The Fears On The Page

How do we recognise our ‘voice’ when it arrives?

In some ways it’s easier to learn to recognise ‘voice’ by talking about what happens when it’s not there. Stories seem forced or self-conscious when the teller or writer has not found their voice. In the reading you perceive an inauthenticity, or a gap between the storyteller and their work.  In the words of Charles Bukowski,

Almost all poetry written, past and present, is a failure because the intent, the slant and accent, is not a carving like stone or eating a good sandwich or drinking a good drink, but more like somebody saying, “Look, I have written a poem … see my POEM!... It’s when you begin to lie to yourself in a poem in order to simply make a poem, that you fail.

Authentic Voice in Marketing

Writing the poem, novel, screenplay or short story is only one half of the job description if you want to write or tell stories for a living.  The second half is getting it out into the world. The alternative to sending out all those hopeful letters to agents and publishers, is to self-publish. The advantage of self-publishing is that you have more control over the process. The disadvantage is that you will need to invest money upfront, and that you will have to roll out the publicity machine alone.

Whichever route you take, you’ll almost certainly need to have a website for your book, as well as to take on the social media aspect of the marketing. Publishers now also strongly advise authors to engage with Facebook, Twitter and other social media forums. For reasons you’ll come to appreciate in a minute, it’s very difficult for someone else to do that effectively on your behalf.

Us storytellers often bemoan the need to market our own work. We’d much rather be sealed away in a dark room practicing our craft. Certainly, the shift from the immersive writing space into ‘hard-sell’ mode can be rather discombobulating (yes, that is a real word).

The reason it shocks us sensitive types so much, is that we believe that the publicity bit requires us to develop a tough shell, and to present a rehearsed facade to the world. That belief is misguided.

You may be delighted to know that the ‘hard-sell’ approach no longer bears fruit, if it ever did. Successful publicity, nowadays done mostly via the web, requires something else. It requires us to use the authentic ‘voice’ that we’ve been cultivating with such care when we write. Successful marketing needs us to be ourselves.

The value of information is in decline. As long as we have access to the internet, we can, fairly instantaneously, get hold of as much information, if not more, than we can handle. We are increasingly overwhelmed when confronted by the sheer volume of it. As a result, many of us are beginning to stop being interested, and switch off.  

Now, what people crave is relationships, authentic communications, real conversations in the non-real world.

I love the website Humans Of New York, so do 14,946,300 other people. The reason it’s so popular is that it shares the honest, heartfelt stories of real people. It allows us to connect with our own emotion and humanity, and with that in others.

If you want to people to become interested in what you’re doing, share your heartfelt stories. Start talking about your creative process. Cultivate friendships online, just as you would in the real world.  When people are interested enough, they’ll ask you what you can give them to read.

If you’d like some examples of writer’s sharing their hopes, fear and vulnerabilities around the writing process, you’ll find them on the Wild Words Facebook page.

Becoming The Wild Writer

Trust that there's a reason that your body and mind need to tell this story at this time. You may not be consciously aware of it, but there's something to be processed. It may be something you've been working with for a long time, and which holds many fears. If so, no wonder it's not easy to face!  Forgive yourself the resistance.

The closer you get to your authentic voice, and the more you're saying what needs to be said, the more it will write itself. The authenticity will create the appropriate form and dissolve the block. So keep searching for your authentic voice. PASSION is a good indication of where you need to go.

Absence of concentration, whilst lambasted at school, is not always a bad thing. Where does you body and mind need to go to find the real you?

When we can tell our autobiographical and fictional stories unashamedly, without diverging from, or drowning in, the emotions concerned…

When we are able to welcome all the pieces of ourselves back, and send those that are not us, back to where they came from…

When we can stand proudly in the fullness of who we are, and be witnessed in that…

Then we’ve found our voice.

Mark Twain said,

If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.

Speaking from a place of truth. What an utter relief that would be. Ironically, it’s in finding what we have in common with all other animals, -that it’s enough just to be as we are- that we find our unique voice as storytellers.

To see the Writing Prompt that accompanies this article, you'll need to sign up on the Wild Words website homepage to receive the Monthly Newsletter, or join the Wild Words Facebook Group.

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.