In an interview with the Paris Review, Henry Miller explained that didn’t find his voice until he wrote Tropic of Cancer. It must have come as quiet a relief. Not only is it a gratifying experience for a writer to finally stumble upon the correct pitch of his or her literary warble, but Cancer was also the book that brought him recognition. He was well into his forties by the time it found publication, and this was during an era when the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds of the world had already struck it big by their mid-twenties.
But writing a great book is not a race – it’s a craft. And one doesn’t excel at that craft until finding their own voice.
It’s like learning to ride a bike. You can understand the mechanics of a bicycle all you want, but you’re never going to get it to take you anywhere until you know how to use your own legs to power it.
Falling Down and Getting Back Up Again
We can take this analogy even further. Like learning to ride a bike, finding your voice and learning to be a better writer takes a lot of trying, falling down, then starting over again.
It’s all a matter of experimentation.
Hemingway might have been lucky enough to find his voice at an early age, but it didn’t come without effort. He worked as a journalist and wrote dozens of short stories that reflected varying cadences and formats before he came upon his distinctive style. It took a great deal of trial and error.
That’s the key to developing your own sense of who you are as a writer – taking the time to play around with words and see what works, what doesn’t, and which voice flows through your fingers most naturally.
There are several things you can do to help you down the path to finding your voice:
- Read everything, steal it all.
As Stephen King advised, “If you don’t have time to read, you the time (or the tools) to write.”
If you’re going to find your voice as a writer, you need to see what others have done before you. So read voraciously. Read various fictional genres, read non-fiction, read poetry, read books from men and women, read books by people from different countries and ethnic backgrounds and time periods.
Read it all, and steal it all.
If you stumble across a style you find interesting, try it on for size. Even if you don’t like a particular style – maybe you even hate it – try writing a few paragraphs in it to get a sense for what you don’t like about it.
Teach your fingers the muscle memory of greatness. Hunter S. Thompson used to type the Great Gatsby again and again just to get a feel for how the words flow.
Bottom line – learn from those who have come before you.
- Forget the audience.
When you write with an audience in mind, it can be tempting to tailor your writing to what you think it will like, or to censor yourself in some way.
Forget the idea that an audience could ever exist. Write the story that you want to read.
Come to think of it, I think Toni Morrison summed this up perfectly: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
If you want to read it, chances are someone else will too.
- Learn the rules, now break them.
Some of the greatest books ever written contained no consideration for “proper” grammar. Ulysses, for example. But while James Joyce might have thrown grammar out the window, he knew its rules first.
Think of it this way – the most successful criminals are legal experts.
Put in the effort to become adept at the rules of grammar, then play around with them.
Maybe, like Joyce and Cormac McCarthy, your voice doesn’t have much room for colons or quotation marks. Or maybe like Tom Wolfe, you favor an overabundance of all punctuation.
The point is that you have to know the rules to break them, and that your particular voice might articulate by rewriting said rules.
- Change tenses and points of view.
For years I thought that I was a first-person, present tense writer. It gave my work a sense of immediacy that I enjoyed.
But then I had a piece (well, have a piece – the book I’m working on currently) that I liked but which seemed off for some reason. So I decided to give it a go in third person rather than first, and with the transition it naturally worked its way into past tense. That turned out to be the magic formula.
Play around with tenses and POV. Sometimes you have the right story, it’s just not being seen through the right lens. Adjust until it comes into focus.
- Take on different assignments.
Every writer starts out with a certain purity of intention – “I will not compromise this holy thing that is my writing by using it for any purpose outside my vision.” I get that. But when I first started writing for a living, I quickly learned that I would have to use my talent in a wide variety of ways that I’d never considered in order to make sure that the bills got paid.
That meant writing journalistically about things that didn’t interest me. It meant writing bios and even resumes. It meant ghostwriting more than a few things that I would never – NEVER – put my name on. It meant copywriting, copywriting, copywriting.
And you know what? I’m glad that I did all of it. Practically every project made me a better writer, in one way or another. It has been the ultimate practice in forced experimentation. My writing has been to hell and back, and not only has it honed my skills as a writer and helped me find my voice, but it has taught me the discipline that it takes to sit in the chair for hours on end and string words together.
Working as a writer like this isn’t an option for most people. But you can get this kind of intensive training in other ways. It’s why writing programs in college have you produce so many seemingly stupid assignments that you feel are totally inapplicable to what you want to produce. Or why so many people love writing prompts.
It’s all about abusing and torturing your talent until it becomes molded to your demands. Eventually it will develop Stockholm Syndrome, and it will become eager to please you.
Above all, give yourself the freedom to write badly.
If your work doesn’t take some bad spills and come away with skinned knees, you’re not pushing it hard enough.
So take risks, experiment, learn (and steal) from the best, and do it every single day.
No training wheels allowed.