The True Voice

One issue writers seem to think about at one time or another is finding their true voice. Voice, commonly, is chosen for the occasion. In conversation, voice is adjusted for people and context. You speak with your daughter differently than you do the woman at the toll booth. The voice of this blog post, while personable, needs to be accessible in discussing a topic of interest to writers and readers alike, as opposed to my preference: A guttural and incoherent shout emanating from the depths of my hellish soul.

The question is raised as to the importance of the true voice. Does it exist at all? Other writers have weighed in and the consensus generally relates to the type of writing contemplated and if the writer wants to get paid.

My father, who was a commercially successful playwright, told me, after I waved my well-worn copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Double in front of his face: “Yes, but of course the people who write that kind of thing are freaks.”

I resented him saying that, and at age twenty, took it personally; dressed in my white rabbit onesie, I had every intention of emulating Dostoyevsky. How could he say that? I realized later what dad meant: Try making a living writing books like Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky was a rarity, and in that respect, my father was right: Dostoyevsky was a freak. So was Poe; so was ETA Hoffmann, Kafka; just about any of the authors I cherished.

Let’s say hypothetically you are a freak; and that you have locked yourself in a skid row hotel room for the last five years, drinking your after-shave in the evening, handicapping horse races in the afternoon and stealing whatever you need for the rent in the middle of the night: The idyllic writer’s existence. All along you are writing compulsively, with craft in mind and the intention of whatever you write to be read, not simply by other writers, but by people in general. Your audience is comprised of people and you want to get paid for people reading your work. What are your chances?

The odds still depend on the form of writing you choose.

An expression comes to mind: “I want to release my inner (blank).” The blank is usually filled with someone else’s name, not yours: “My inner Picasso,” or, “My inner Mohammed Ali.” There remains a need for heroes to do the work, and in the case of a writer, to potentially sound like someone else, like’s one’s hero writer. If only I could write a ten-page run-on sentence like Faulkner. . . if only.

Many writers say that’s ok, more than ok. You should sound like your hero who’s already been published (although probably not Faulkner), or you aren’t going to be published yourself. If not, you had better write in the manner prescribed by your editor, which is what the fans want to read anyway, not what you necessarily want to write; or, you’ll get fired.

We need to consider the issue of these inner someone elses. What if one released not one’s inner someone else but one’s own true voice, the mythological one? What would be the risk in doing so? Embarrassment? That you as opposed to your hero-self might not be up for the task?

Is that true voice clearly audible? The organic creative writing teacher might suggest that in today’s society, where parroting and conformity poses a grave danger to authenticity, the true voice needs to be discovered; and it may be locked in some underground vault out of necessity, or out of fear. And even if one were to find that vault, through whatever shamanistic means (most likely after thousands of pages of writing), the danger remains the vault door would open and there, sitting on a short wooden stool, a tape recorder with sticky note attached: “Press play.”

But let’s say you still wanted to be your own hero and lead a hero’s life; to write and speak in your true voice. What does that even mean?

As a collective, we need heroes. The reasons have been given by various authorities of the status quo usually invoking moral judgement and team participation: Heroes are archetypes and uphold standards of conduct; we as citizens are programmed to gravitate toward our heroes; heroes nurture; heroes reveal our missing qualities; heroes save us; heroes give us hope; heroes validate morals; heroes provide human drama; heroes are problem solvers and heroes provide justice.

As far as writing goes, could you be a hero and write nothing but clear, concise health articles, accessible to everyone? Perhaps.

A certain species of psychologist, the smart evil ones I call them, say real heroes have to go further and in a sense, drop all their programmed bullshit; that heroism involves true action and speaking in a true voice, which isn’t necessarily rewarded by society. In fact, being a true hero involves risk and may be dangerous to that hero’s well-being. A hero has to be willing, in today’s parlance, to be deviant or perceived as deviant, and to suffer the consequences of living and being perceived as that threat to society. These psychologists point out most people prefer to let others take on that responsibility, to let someone else run the risk of ostracization on their road to herodom. There’s too much to lose being a hero and it’s easier not being one. And not being a hero doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.

Dostoyevsky was both a freak and a hero. He got himself into the mess that paved the way for his future hero status by reading aloud a single inflammatory letter to a group of St. Petersburg rabble rousers in 1849. The Tsar got wind of it and off he went to Siberia for ten years. Nicolas I even sentenced Fyodor to death initially as a sham in order to scare him and his cronies. And prior to all that, young Fyodor was raised by a brutally strict and hyper religious physician father. He came back from the deprivations of Siberia to write books like Crime and Punishment, Notes from the Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. He was conservative as an elder and espoused suffering and sacrifice to young writers; although never quite learned to manage his money according to his wife. Dostoyevsky, the writer, not the voice, worked hard to express what he needed to and performed under duress, even by today’s standards. In the 1860s, he signed on with a ruthless publisher threatening to usurp his entire oeuvre unless he produced a novel within a ridiculously short time span. He gave them The Gambler. In a sense, it was what the fans wanted and Dostoyevsky produced.

Dostoyevsky was a freak in that he was a born novelist but not every writer is. Voice or no voice, it boils down to how bad you want to make a living with the tools and time allotted and how much you are willing to sacrifice. Through honest and arduous endeavor, you can find the voice, or a close approximation; but once found, need to decide what to do with it and when. If your true voice can be understood by the many, then you might actually get paid for using it. That’s a win win.


Reference: The Atlantic; Voice Isn't the Point of Writing