Finding your voice: The art of going too far
We hear it all the time. “Writing fiction is about finding your voice.” “That author has a wonderful voice.” “The Voice is a television show that I don’t watch.” Okay, that last one was mostly said by me.
However, if you search for a solid definition of “voice,” it’s hard to pinpoint the exact meaning. Defining “voice” can be the snipe hunt of writing about writing. Even more elusive are reasonable suggestions on how to find one’s voice. Idiot that I am, I’m going to attempt to do both.
For the sake of this essay, one’s voice is that part of the writing that is inherently yours. That unique quality that is imbued in the work that wouldn’t exist unless you chose to create it. Something no one else could have written. Your voice is you. Your “youness.” But that means you have to discover who you are, or at least the parts of yourself that you want to include in your writing.
There are two words that you don’t see in a lot of “how to write” essays or books. Two essential words for any writer, but they don’t necessarily promote a quick fix. They don’t sell hope the way a six-step plan does. Those words are “patience” and “experience.” They are the cornerstones of both a long creative journey and a sustained writing career. There is nothing negative about either of these things, other than you can’t have them right now. You cannot rush experience. And you need patience to get there.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t ways to discover one’s voice along the way.
THERE ARE NO ANSWERS UNTIL YOU ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
I found my voice — or at least the confidence to express my voice — when I was a graduate screenwriting student at UCLA. Although I had been writing for a number of years, it was at UCLA that I pushed myself and understood and accepted creative failure as a positive. Good writing is ambitious. Which means that in order to learn, good writers must be willing to fail.
I had one professor that specifically pushed me forward. Not because of any answers he offered, but because of the questions he posed. This professor was a bit eccentric — he once taught a three-hour seminar with a parrot on his shoulder — and his feedback on people’s work was often in need of deciphering. But I always walked out of class with great questions that I still ask myself as I write. After all, there are no answers until you ask the right questions.
We were in class one day, a small graduate seminar. Someone read their most recent pages. The scene opened with a man walking down a rural dirt road. There was a farm with a cow and some chickens next to the barn, the sun low in the sky. An old barbed wire fence and a rusted-out hulk of a tractor. A creaking weather vane. A quiet, idyllic scene that took about two minutes to describe, but nothing happened.
We listened attentively, nothing really wrong with the pages, well-written and visual. The professor sat up and said, “You know, that’s a beautiful description you’ve written. I could see the scene clearly. But, the way I figure it, you may as well have him fuck the cow.”
That was it. That was the extent of his feedback. And one of the best lessons I have ever learned.
The other students laughed or found it insulting. They saw it as a provocation to do something shocking. Some people thought because the scene lacked conflict, he had dismissed it altogether. Maybe and maybe not, but there was more to be taken from the statement.
It is my belief that he was trying to get that writer to surprise himself (and no, I wasn’t that writer). To not play it safe. To see where the odd choice took him. And to not dismiss some of the more marginal thoughts for a story.
Occasionally I’ve heard people say, “There are no new stories,” or some crap about how “there are only twelve stories” and everything is a variation of those structures. Most of you already know that’s a bunch of horseshit. If that were true, my story about a 100-year-old lumberjack who becomes an astronaut and eventually learns the true meaning of Christmas wouldn’t exist (I await your call, Mr. Studio Executive).
Great writing cannot be created without risk. Great art cannot be created without risk. Originality is hard, because it is risky. By definition, if you are creating something new, you are in uncharted territory. When you are attempting to do something original, you are more likely to fail. However, the attempt itself is success. Because when it works, you’ve created something that is entirely yours, something that wouldn’t exist unless you had created it. The very definition of one’s “voice.”
Anything less would be to aspire to mediocrity. The worst thing you can be as an artist is middle-of-the-road. Because you’ve failed from the start. You’ve failed by being ordinary and making obvious choices. Easy is for assholes. Don’t fuck your way to the middle.
The professor that suggested the man-on-bovine action offered something that would have never occurred to the writer. Without even knowing the context, we can agree that it was probably the wrong direction for his story, but what if he took the advice? What if he was willing to see where that took both him and the story? I’m thinking the result would be unique. That’s what we, as writers, are looking for. To allow ourselves to go in directions that we’re not necessarily comfortable going in.
GO TOO FAR
Have you censored yourself? Not written something because you were afraid you would offend? Worried what would happen when your mother read it? Maybe you revealed too much about yourself? That it was only funny to you?
Those are all forms of self-censorship . When you write, you write for yourself as the only audience member. You write a movie you would pay to see, a book you would buy in hardcover, a play you would wait in line for in winter. “Bad” or “Good” is for other people to decide. The most important thing is that it is yours.
Believe it or not, a lot of writers write stories they would hate. It seems crazy, but I guarantee some of you are doing it. It is what happens when you write for other people as the audience, second-guessing what “they” will like. That’s a sure path to mediocrity. A distrust in one’s voice. If you’re going to fail, fail spectacularly, not ordinarily. Jump off the building, not the stoop.
I can write jokes all day that will make other people laugh. I might not find a single one of them funny, but I have the skill to do it. That’s craft. That’s experience. It’s the heart of a lot of work-for-hire and there’s nothing wrong with that kind of work. Unless it carries over to your personal work. I’d rather write a joke that cracks me up that nobody else gets (It happens more than I’d like to admit) than a joke that kills but I don’t find funny.
As both an artist and a professional, my voice is my greatest asset. It is uniquely mine. It can’t be stolen. It can’t be reproduced. It is me.
I suppose that’s what this light rant was supposed to communicate. Don’t settle. The whole reason why we write is to see where our brain will take us. Get crazy. Get weird. Go too far. Write about things that surprise you. Get out there and fuck that cow.