A friend called last week to shoot the breeze. After we caught up, the conversation turned to our respective writing projects and he confided that he wished he were more literary. This man is the author of several books and currently writes a thought-provoking column for a national newspaper. Yet with all his success, here he was expressing dissatisfaction with his writing voice at a fundamental level. I thought about his statement for a moment and tried it on to see how it felt. Did I wish my writing were more literary? In a word: nope. I’m no stranger to self-criticism. But when it comes to my writing voice, I feel solid. I felt even better after reading Delia Ephron’s mini-memoir, Sister Husband Mother Dog: (etc.) It was the first time I’d read anything by her and from the first paragraph, I was hooked. This wasn’t because her writing was particularly beautiful. In fact, her voice is similar to mine, only ten times more experienced and assured. Like Ephron, I often write one word sentences. I, too, swing (sometimes fluidly, sometimes madly) between laughter and sadness, sometimes within the same sentence. And I, too, am a believer in writing as if you were talking: If you wouldn’t say it, don’t type it. In my professional roles as an editor and freelance writer, I have often had to mimic the voices of others: doctors, exercise gurus, a best-selling author of parenting books. So I know that adopting someone else’s voice is tricky business. For example, the parenting expert loves puns (I don’t) and parentheses (I do) but hates semicolons and exclamation points (I hate them, too). Her style (and therefore my style when working with her) falls somewhere between authoritative and cute. That’s not an easy combo, but I’ve gotten pretty adept at sounding like she does. But for my personal essays, my voice is strictly my own. I never set out to write like anyone else, not even the authors I greatly admire. Nor am I conscious of trying to consistently sound the same. That happens naturally — as long as I’m honest about the subject at hand. One of the most important things I’ve learned about developing my voice was a lesson gleaned at my first magazine job: Make it right…then make it sing. I was an assistant editor and the senior staffers were a group of whip-smart perfectionists. My work was evaluated and edited, then reevaluated and reedited, often through four or five cycles of changes. Typical comments written in the margins of my drafts were gems such as: You’re boring me. You already said this. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Totally awkward. Fix it. This place was no writer’s workshop and these people were not gentle mentors. Junior editors either learned how to craft a story properly or they were gone. It was only after you got a story’s bones firmly in place that you got the chance to put your stamp on it. I still invoke the make it right…then make it sing philosophy today, asking myself as I work: Is this what I really want to say? And is this how I want to say it? Periodically answering those two questions has kept many a piece from running off the rails, or from sounding as if a stranger snagged my keyboard. (And by the way, I used every one of those editors’ nasty comments when reading over my sons’ papers through high school and college.) This summer, I read The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the intensely personal blockbuster Eat, Pray, Love. I found it hard to believe these two books are by the same author, as Gilbert’s voice is so different this time around. Eat Pray Love is folksy and accessible while Signature is formal and, well, literary. But for me, Signature was also chilly, sometimes boring and ultimately, not nearly as satisfying as its less literary predecessor. That’s not just a plot issue, in my opinion — it’s a voice issue, which leads me back to the phone chat with my pal. “You’re not literary,” I told him, “and neither am I. We sound like ourselves telling our stories and people seem to respond to that just fine.” My advice to him — and to myself — is to try and improve the voice you have rather than try to sound like someone else. Whether your story needs sharpening or softening, expansion or whittling, gentle coaxing or a firm hand, just be sure tell it in your voice. Then make it sing.
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Darian’s Note: Are You My Mentor?
The word “mentor” used to make me feel uncomfortable. The idea of another person helping to guide my career in a formal way made me cringe growing up — but today I also cringed as I wrote that sentence.
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