On Finding Your Voice…
So here’s something that should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me:
I hear voices in my head.
Not the kind that push me to do horrible things like kill puppies and eat carbs, but the voice I hear in my head when I’m reading my own writing. When I like how I sound, the voice is super cool; think Shane from The L Word mixed with Angelina Jolie in Gone In 60 Seconds. When I hate how I sound, the voice is like an old Rachel Dratch character on SNL. I sound like I’m yelling, only not in a way anyone cares to hear like when they buy a Mary J. Blige album. It’s shrill, it’s annoying, it’s not me. Or at least not the me that I want to portray in my work. That smooth hustler’s tone that I hear when I enjoy my writing? That’s my voice.
I remember the moment I found my voice, too. All praises due to VICE and my editor Kelly McClure. Kelly was my former BUST editor, and when she left for VICE she added me to the writers there. For BUST I wrote album reviews (I still do, in fact) but there was room to not be too “voicey” so to speak (now I’m voicey AF in my reviews). When Kelly got to VICE, she was basically like, “I like how you talk, so do more of that.” I’ve never actually had a phone convo with Kelly nor have I met her in person (see you at the next Bey Hive meeting, though), but our emails were always bursting with personality. And without actually saying it, I knew that’s what she meant. I also knew that the stakes would be raised at an outlet like VICE. That place is full of personalities and oozes I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuckness while at the same time oozes I-Give-A-Fuckness. If I didn’t bring the real Kathy then I would’ve drowned. I also would have never been writing for the brand for as long as I have (cash me mostly at Noisey these days, how bow dah?)
It all comes down to voice. And writers, I’m sure you’ve had an editor that’s said “this needs more voice” or “it’s too voicey.” Podcasters, radio personalities, you too may struggle with this. There’s a way to break out of your creative laryngitis though.
Write the way you speak…only better.
Did you ever see the film Private Parts, and the scene where Howard Stern gets the job at WNBC and uses that weird nasal voice whenever he says “Double you INNNNNNNNN bee see!” into the mic? See, that’s your corny voice. That’s you being “writer guy” or “radio gal.” That’s not the real you, B. The real you is that person who says witty things over group texts and everyone replies with “LOL!” And granted, not every media outlet wants to hear your best Whatsapp rambling voice, but there are gems to that tone that you can sharpen and incorporate into your writing. It’s the confidence, really. You’re confident your friends don’t hate the real you (at least I hope so), so you present that person in full form. There, your voice is in sweats, hasn’t shaved its legs in weeks, and is sprawled across the sofa clipping its toenails. There’s a comfort there. If your writing voice reflects a business suit, staring at a resume in some lonely lobby, waiting to speak to the head of HR at KPMG, chances are you’re not coming correct. Ease your way in if you’re scared. Maybe don’t shave your legs and wear a Kanye-style suit with denim and a nice blazer with some J’s. That might do the trick. Eventually you’ll be wearing designer sweats in your writer voice with expensive yet slightly gaudy jewelry. Think DJ Khaled.
You don’t need an outgoing personality, but your writing does.
Some of my favorite writers are interesting in person. They are the funniest, most charmingly sarcastic people in print, but when you meet them they act like a slow loris eating a ball of rice and begging not to be tickled. You might just be that slow loris, and that’s fine. They’re adorable. However, your writing can’t eat a ball of rice. So if there is a disconnect in how you present yourself in social settings vs. how you present yourself on paper, then might I suggest bringing out the fucking party animal into the latter? That is the only way your writing won’t sound like you’re reading off BINGO numbers at a Rotary Club. Some of the best writers are party animals on paper and then never leave their homes. Think about that. So be an introvert in the streets, but an extrovert in the sheets (of paper).
Know when to tone it down.
I’ve died and gone to metaphor heaven like 16 times already in this piece, but it’s because this is my personal writing space and I can do whatever the fuck I want here. However, when I’m writing with purpose (read: paycheck), I don’t vomit these barz all over my work. And it doesn’t even have to be about a check, either. When you’re writing to be read, your real voice pops out in the nuances, if you will. Those moments where the loyal reader can say, “Ah! There she is! I hear her!” Most mainstream media outlets enjoy that level of voice. The casual nudge in the midst of a conversation that lets everyone know your heart is beating. Others just want the facts, man. They want the stiffy (not being sexual) you. You will not find your voice there, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hang with them. However, I can guarantee you that when you do find your voice, it makes places like those that much harder for expressing your true writing. Once you have a strong enough voice, though, you can turn it on and off. I can write like a Drill Rapper or a Wall Street scumbag at this point. *buffs nails*
Lay off social media.
This is just a word of advice: if you’re struggling to find your voice or you’ve lost it somehow, then chill on social media. Here’s why; if you’re reading this article, then chances are you are in some form of media with some podium, no matter how big or how small. You have an audience, and social media is full of those audience members. You want to be “that guy” all the time. You know, the one who is so funny and interesting. The one who gets the most likes and retweets and reposts and shares or whatever. And every time you post some social media thing, you’re giving a tiny piece of yourself away that could have been reserved for your work. I have used SO MANY GOOD PUNCHLINES on stupid Facebook trying to be sooooo funny, and meanwhile I could have saved it for an article. When I feel my voice has faded (and believe me, it fades like twice a week), I stop posting on social media until I find it. I suggest you do the same.
Practice makes perfect.
You won’t wake up with your voice like I claim to have. I’m bullshitting you all when I say it just appeared. I have some old articles where I’m like “ew” and others where I’m like “gosh, where did that cool girl go?” It’s a daily struggle to maintain your personality in your work, and those who say otherwise are either lying or they’ve invented that person specifically for their media platform. If you want to be that guy then by all means, invent away. But if you’d like to maintain integrity within your work and truly feel connected to the product in some way, shape, or form, then find your voice. And when you find it, don’t abuse it, but work to keep it going. I was writing for like 8 years before I truly found mine. It takes time, but it’s worth it.