Today I taught my Creative Writing 101 class about voice, possibly my favorite of any lessons I ever do. I truly knew I wanted to become a writer when I started noticing voice: Salinger in Catcher in the Rye, Tom Wolfe and Kerouac in everything they wrote. I loved how they brought me straight into their brains with their writing, how they made me understand what it felt like to be them or their characters. I couldn’t think of any art form that did that quite as well, or at least that I could use to do that. As I told my class this morning, one of my favorite “compliments” came early in my time at Entertainment Weekly, when a childhood friend read one of my pieces in the magazine and said, astonished, “It sounded just like you!” That’s funny to writers because, well, yeah, duh — I wrote it, so it sounds like me. But it points out what many non-writers and beginning writers think: that to be a “professional writer,” you have to sound like everyone else. A lot of people who get paid to write for a living, mostly for magazines and newspapers and maybe online, do get away with just blending in. But standing out is really the point of writing, isn’t it? It’s a performance, like any other art form.
Because I geek out on voice so much, I’ve developed more ideas for voice exercises than I can ever use in class. So I’m sharing them here:
1. Read and imitate. Find writers with distinctive voices, whom you admire. Read them a lot, and then try to imitate them in your own writing. This may seem counterintuitive: How will I sound distinctive if I sound like someone else? But, for starters, it will come out differently when you do it, just because you’re a different person, writing from a different perspective, likely at a different time and place and about different subject matter. If I write a blog post about Britney Spears, as I am wont to do, but I do it imitating Hemingway, it’s not going to seem like Hemingway. At most it may seem Hemingwayesque. And while I’d love to know what Papa Hem would make of Brit, this would be a totally different thing. A lot of singers actually start out mimicking their idols, and eventually find their own similar, though not identical, sound. (This actually surprised me when I first started singing publicly, when I realized that I could sing, with my very own voice and all its limitations, in the growly style of Joan Jett or the loopy style of Gwen Stefani or the nasal style of Britney Spears or the throaty style of Fiona Apple — I’d still be me and sound like me, but I’d be turning on different “effects,” essentially, and I’d have to pick one and be consistent, or I’d sound nuts. Note that there are also limitations on this: I can’t sing in anything resembling Beyonce’s voice or Christina Aguilera’s voice because my voice simply isn’t good enough. You have to know your technical limitations and use them as charming quirks.) The fact is that most of us are not gifted mimics, and in this case that’s a good thing. You’ll find your version of being influenced by Hemingway, and that will end up being you. Some ideas for voicey writers to check out: Rick Bragg, Elmore Leonard, Salinger, Kerouac, Wolfe, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Orlean, Hemingway.
2. I like this one from Jeff Goins’ blog: Describe yourself in three adjectives, then describe your ideal reader. Now write as if writing straight to that ideal reader, conveying the qualities you want to highlight in yourself.
3. Back to Beyonce. You know how Beyonce has an alter ego she calls “Sasha Fierce,” whom she conjures when she performs so she can be the most intense, badass, otherworldly version of herself? (No? You may read more about this here.) You can come up with your own alter ego for writing “performances,” if that helps you to go a little farther and lose your inhibition. Sometimes what feels like “too much” to you is just enough to really shine through to readers. It’s still you — just in concentrated form.
4. Write as if you’re writing a letter (or email) to a friend. You tend to sound most like “you” when you’re being casual and writing to a specific person.
5. Put on some favorite music, the kind that best reflects the mood you’d like in your writing, and then write away. Lyricists have “voices,” too, whether or not they’re the ones singing the songs. Note how they convey their voices; you can emulate them the same way you emulate prose writers.
6. Journal. Freewriting is one of the best ways to get in touch with your authentic voice, without the fear of anyone reading and judging.