Thank you all for a good list of subjects I can return to often. I am choosing this week’s discussion because it is one that often gets a bit confused. A writer’s voice is what sets him/her apart from all other writers. It is not point of view, speaker, or narrator, but the way in which the writer lays down the words, and expresses what is seen, felt, sensed, even smelled that converys a particular individual’s interpretation of any experience.
The best comparison I have ever come across to define a writer’s voice is that of an artist’s signature stroke. The manner in which a painter applies the paint to a canvas. Each artist does it a bit differently: the way the brush is held, the layers of paint, and the development of shadow, and that difference becomes what is known as that artist’s signature stroke. It is what helps the viewer tell the difference between a Michelangelo, and a Renoir. And the same applies to the writer and his/her voice.
When I started writing, I thought it would be impossible for me to develop a distinctive voice. I used very common language, and often, still do. I was a North Wisconsin hillbilly and that meant, among other things, that my life experience was narrow (I’m being kind here). My background was parochial school, then public high school. Marriage and children, then college. And it was only in college that I discovered that maybe the way I saw things was different and interesting enough to actually make note of it.
But still, a voice? That was something for others like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Lucille Clifton, Robert Frost, Robert Bly, Alan Ginsberg, and the list goes on and on. But, as I read and often admired those Voices, I began to realize that I did understand much of what they were communicating. Their experiences as human beings were not all that different from my own. They were not all that different from me. We were all human beings, simply trying to express whatever we chose to express. And within that process, one poem at a time, we were all developing our own distinctive voices.
And a good thing to remember about that process is that we often don’t like the sound of our own voice. Don’t even recognize it on a recording device, or can’t wrap our own heads around the sounds we ourselves are making. As far as I am concerned, Voice is simply something that happens while one is busily becoming a writer: writing on a regular basis, jotting down notes, keeping a blog, or putting chapbooks together. Voice develops along with the experience.
Several years ago, I was involved in playing a joke on some of my former students. With some help, I created a blog and put up several poems under a totally fictitious pseudonym. Then a group of my former students were asked to visit the site and see what they thought of this totally unknown poet. It didn’t take very long. Less than an hour, and two of them realized that what they were reading ‘sounded’ like something Elizabeth would write. They knew and recognized my voice.
I was pleased to know I had one, but couldn’t tell anyone what those former students recognized while reading those poems. Like a visual artist, I lay down words in the hopes of communicating an idea, a feeling, a sense of the world around me. I am an individual, so the manner in which I do that is individual to me, to my person. Each of you has a voice, and many of them I have come to recognize. And the more you write, the more recognizable that voice becomes. For me, the key to voice development is simply to write.
I know that others might not agree. But that is why this is called a discussion and not something else. The podium is open: