A Word On Voice

Voice. Oh, man.

Voice.

What is ‘voice’ when you’re a writer? How do you obtain and maintain a voice, capture the essence thereof, speak with it and be heard, actually heard?

Voice is written and expressed in myriad fashions – it’s our existential thumbprint. It’s what separates all of us into more unique human beings. A writer’s voice is something that moves others into literary submission. And if you’ve got a strong voice, all it takes is a whisper for people to hear you.

Imagine.

All it takes is a whisper.

There are several billion people on this planet, each with a default voice. We communicate the same set of emotions, expressions, fears, and dreams with that default voice, and it’s a thin layer, a surface level, on which the human voice generally operates. It can be polite conversation, a heart-to-heart, or merely a ‘hello’ in passing. Everyone is capable of using this sort of ‘voice.’

The artist’s voice is deeper than that, varied in its depth. Its ultimate goal is to move its recipients into an impossible place, world, or emotion. It’s telepathy executed to the tune of a specific lullaby. Some people will identify with this lullaby. Some will merely hear it, acknowledge it. Some will remain deaf to it for the entirety of their existence.

The writer’s voice is particularly hard to ascertain, as everyone is capable of writing a word or set of words, just as everyone is capable of participating in polite conversation like I mentioned. Everyone can say ‘hello’ and everyone can write ‘hello.’ The point at which a writer has a ‘strong’ voice – or a voice at all – is literally a matter of determining who can arrange 26 letters of the alphabet in a manner that is agreed upon by a populace to be more appealing than how the next guy arranged 26 letters of the alphabet.

That’s really trippy if you think about it hard enough.

Seriously, think about that.

One writer could look at a woman drinking coffee and describe it exactly as it’s happening, and everyone would probably agree on the description. The emotional value of that description might be neutral, but hey – it’s accurate and so it is sufficient.

Another writer could somehow interpret the same woman drinking the same coffee exactly as it’s happening, but in a way that’s… more than sufficient. There’s tone. There are lyrical word choices. There’s bite and grit and malice, beauty and charm and lacy melody. There are decisions being made in a literary sense that it’s actually above the reader at first, a flit of magic unnoticeable to the naked eye until everything just blossoms at the end, concludes with a reverberating chill down the spine.

It’s not just a woman drinking coffee anymore. It’s a story about a human being. It’s a story other human beings want to hear and relate to; it’s a story human beings want to remember and hold close to beating hearts because they now believe it’s just added to and emotionally affected their existence as a human fucking being.

That’s voice.

Don’t be sufficient. Don’t ever be sufficient.

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2 thoughts on “A Word On Voice

  1. I like a lot your points and only someone who is truly passionate about writing like you could express them. You nailed the core of what voice is: humanity. However, I might be wrong but you seem to confuse style with voice. Style is part of voice, but voice goes beyond style. Beyond as it’s not limited to how you cast imagery and action in your description, but it’s also about what you cast.

    You know what they also sell at Starbucks? Madeleines. Not sure if you have read Marcel Proust, but in his work he propels a long narrative from his memory of eating madeleines. And that’s what he wrote:

    “Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it? ”

    Naturally, we are here emotionally flooded by Proust’s flamboyant style. That’s his “how”, But he’s not only using a profusion of adjectives and adverbs to tackle the appearance, texture and taste of the madeleine or his act of eating it. He’s CONVEYING, through this madeleine questions that he will slowly answer through his extensive work. I admit that I never finished À la recherche du temps perdu (it’s my lifetime project), but I’ve read enough to know Proust’s voice: melancholic, digressive, wandering, sweet.

    As a screenwriter I tend to follow more a Hemingway than a Proust in terms of style. Precise, synthetic. But the voice I try to bring on to my writing is closer to Proust’s pretensions.

  2. Pingback: Voice | panhandleprofessionalwriters

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