Discussion #16: Voice

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:


About 1sojournal

Loves words and language. Dances on paper to her own inner music. Loves to share and keeps several blogs to facilitate that. They can be found here: http://1sojournal.wordpress.com/ http://soulsmusic.wordpress.com/ http://claudetteellinger.wordpress.com/
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5 Responses to Discussion #16: Voice

  1. pmwanken says:

    Thanks for this, Elizabeth. I love your description/analogy of the artist’s signature stroke. While I am not an artist and couldn’t tell the difference between the brush strokes of Renoir and Michelangelo, my brain understands there is a difference. And your description of how the brush is held, etc., helps me wrap my brain around the concept even more.

    I also appreciate your description of how we often don’t like the sound of our own voice and also don’t recognize it or like the way it sounds on a recording. Of course, you’re right about that! And naturally that will transfer over to the “writing voice.”

    As I have written “officially” now for 10 months, I’ve struggled with this…looking for/finding my “voice.” Perhaps I’ve had it all along and just haven’t recognized it. Or can’t believe it’s “mine” when I “hear” it (like those first recordings I heard of my voice that I swore were not me). And perhaps those times when I’ve tried writing something that felt like I was “forcing” something — that felt as awkward as using my opposite hand to hold my pen — were times when I was trying to impersonate another’s voice.

    You’ve given good advice, Elizabeth. I will just continue to write. And let my voice develop. If I “pick up an accent” along the way, it will be as a result of time vs. impersonation.


  2. Tilly Bud says:

    Paula, you can’t force your voice; it evolves as you evolve as a writer.

    I don’t know that we can say what our particular voice is; I know I can’t. Short, sharp, acerbic maybe? I’m not sure that I am those things; certainly not all of the time. It might be easier to comment on a poet we know well and describe THEIR voice (sorry for shouting; I don’t know how to italicise comments).

    An excellent topic, Elizabeth; but I’m stumped 🙂

  3. Mary says:

    Well, I do know that I can recognize the voices of the blogging poets I visit regularly. I would guess that 75% of the time I read a poem of a familiar person that I could probably guess who wrote it without a name being attached. Elizabeth, your experience with your students does not surprise me – that they could guess it was you by your ‘voice.’ Tilly Bud (for example), I do think that I could recognize your poems by your ‘voice’ as well, if your name wasn’t attached to them. At least 75% of the time. And I agree with your statement that a person can’t force a voice, but it just evolves. I belong to a writing group which has been together about 12 years now, so we know each other VERY well. It is totally amazing the many different voices there. Each very unique. And when we critique each other’s work, we critique with the individual ‘voices’ taken in consideration. We never wish to be clones of one another, to force another to write in someone else’s voice.

  4. Mike Patrick says:

    From the above, may I assume someone growing as a poet will have his/her voice change with experience? Several of the sites I visit are written by artists who display their work, and they are good. Could their early work be recognized by comparing it to what they are doing today? I doubt it, and I doubt that a serious poet’s work could be recognized by his/her early poetry.

    I thought voice had to do with personal style. I use a byline under the title, Times New Roman 12, format my poems to the left, and only double space between stanzas. Is that part of my voice, or is that just the clearing of the throat?

    I do agree with Mary. I believe I would be able to identify Viv’ or Paula’s poetry because I read everything they write. Viv has that wonderful, direct way of saying things; very few frills, deeply reflective, and with that ability to describe things delicately and straightforward at the same time. Paula is always creating another form modification, making it an original Paula. It almost has a nametag on it. Her deep religious background comes through, yet she is always coming up with fresh similes and metaphors that take my breath away. There are a couple others who are consistent enough I could recognize their work. I just don’t think I’ve reached that voice-point yet. I’m still feeling out the basics and copying anyone I like.

  5. Jinksy says:

    I’d love to know whether I have a ‘voice’ – or merely one crying in the wilderness, which nobody can hear! LOL

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