In 2006, I was sitting with eleven other students and one mentor during our first meeting at the Loft’s Mentor Series Program. I sat upright, legs crossed, trying to project professionalism and writerly ju-ju while hoping that no one would learn that I basically wrote between diaper changes and during my children’s naps.
Our first mentor, poet Jim Moore, told us that this was our year to find our voice as authors. A woman whose entrance piece I had read and greatly admired raised her hand. She said something like: “I understand the idea of the voice of a piece, but what is the author’s voice? And how do I find it?”
She argued very persuasively that each piece has a unique voice but the idea of an “author’s voice” was too nebulous and too changeable to “find.” Still trying to hide my ignorance, I said nothing—a cowardly decision, a decision I regret, and a decision I paid for over eight long years. It is only now that I understand that both Jim and the burgeoning writer were right.
Some authors’ voices are easy to peg. Take John Green, for instance. Every character he writes, every perspective he writes from (male or female) is the same. Pick out a line. It could come from anyone in any of his books, main character or side character. Everyone sounds the same. When I pick up a John Green novel, I know exactly what I will get—romance (more often than not doomed) between hyper-intelligent kids, with lots of banter. Don’t get me wrong: I love his voice, (I’ve read, re-read, and re-read Looking for Alaska), but I love his voice less over time and across books because Green’s voice and his character’s voices are indistinguishable. In fact, formerly a fan-girl, I doubt I’ll pick up his next because I’ve already read it.
Other authors’ voices are hard to detect, changing so dramatically from one piece to another that I can hardly see a resemblance.
Take M.T. Anderson, for instance. He wrote this opening:
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home.
It was the beginning of spring break.
Everything at home was boring.
Link Arwalker was like, “I’m so null,” and Marty was all, “I’m null, too, unit.”
And this opening:
“The rain poured from the heavens as we fled across the mud-flats, that scene of desolation; it soaked through our clothes andbit at the skin with its chill. It fell hard and ceaseless from the heavens as the deluge that had both inundated Deucalion and buoyed up Noah; and as with that deluge, we knew not whether it fell as an admonition for our sins or as the promise of a brighter, newly washed morning to come.”
—The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, vol. 2
The narrators sound so remarkably different. Look at the syntax, word choice, world view, authoritative stance, choices of metaphor, etc, etc. This author demonstrates such a range of voices he can embody that the only brand he can create is: damn good writing. When I pick up an MT Anderson novel, I never know what I’ll get—and I love that. All I know is that he will astonish me with brave, unique craft choices.
So how would I find his “voice?” As my friend in the mentorship said, I can find the character’s voice, but the author’s?
As it turns out, I find his voice in the deep questions he chooses to ask. Where John Green’s work asks how smart teenagers fall in love, MT Anderson asks how freedom and courage stand against unfair, overwhelming power structures.
An author’s voice can be flexible and distinguishable from the characters’ when it isn’t about the words on the page, when it resides in the deeper themes that an author approaches, the long-standing, life-haunting questions that we can’t step around.
So, I turn to you now: what are the questions that haunt you? Look at the body of work you have produced already. Where are the
commonalities? What techniques do you rely on? Which ones do you over-rely on? You might write across genres, but underneath it all what questions drive the characters, the themes, the plot?
So, I pass along Jim Moore’s advice, modified: have the courage this year, and the next, and the next, to delve into the questions that won’t vanish from your life. And in Martha Graham’s words, have the courage to “keep the channel open.” It is the path to your voice.
Thanks, Swati, for reminding us to take the difficult path–and to read more M.T. Anderson.
Jackie — I see this in your work too actually! I see the question of what inspires greatness in your work which is one of the reasons I so enjoy reading your PBs.
I read Octavian Nothing volume 1 and just loved the voice, once I got used to it (and I learned so many new words!) Just picked up Volume 2 yesterday, and I can't wait to read it (thirty more books to go on the book list first, though.)
Ha! We do keep you busy.
Love this, Swati. Till recently, I've given a lot more thought to the voice of each piece rather than my own author's voice, and how it might reside in the themes that fascinate — or plague — me. Thanks for this.
That's so funny because I thought of you when I finished this and wondered to myself — am I saying anything different than what Laura Ruby said when she lectured on Writing Fear?
Thank you, Swati, for explaining voice so concisely. It's one of those concepts like theme that we talk around a lot because it's so hard to define.
Thanks,Mandy. It is a bit of a slippery concept, isn't it? There's something else here that I'm still trying to tease out — something about patterns. I notice, for instance, that in the two books I've cited above, MT Anderson starts us in similar places — a boy on a journey. Obviously, I can't quite articulate it yet– something about our approach to structure maybe? I should ask Marsha Q.
One of my current Hamline students commented how this post made her think about both kinds of voice in her novel. Thank you, brilliant friend, for getting us to think about both kinds. Your questions toward the end are great ones to consider and apply to NF, too. You know how excited that gets me. How about a talk on this at an upcoming residency?
Claire– As Tobin's latest book demonstrates, those who write across genres tend to still be fascinated by the same questions.