On a recent post, “People Like It, Now Make It Better,” a reader asked me a compelling question. “Is there any way a writer can hone in on one voice they enjoy using…and I’m curious if there are any techniques I can use [to access that voice]”
The best questions are usually the hardest to answer, and I’ve been thinking about it all week. I remember what it felt like to find my voice but struggled to explain it in a way that would resonate with this reader.
At the time my response was that finding your voice is a very intuitive process and every writer has to feel their way through it. But as I thought about it this week I saw that there’s much more to it than that.
The Worst Best Story I Ever Wrote
In my freshman year of college, I wrote my first good story. It was “good” because it wasn’t an intellectual hack job.
Until then, I had been a student of literary writers and wanted to write like them. I wrote stories with this ideal in mind and produced the work of an amateur; forced, clunky, and awkward.
Each new story I composed was like going on a first date. I’d meet a new idea, something exciting and different. Their plot was kind of cute, and I’d think their characters had real potential. So I’d write a first draft with high expectations.
We’d have coffee together, and the first draft was a little awkward. I’d write two or three drafts to see if we have anything in common. I’d have a lot of dialogue, but the story arch just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. I’d feel it in my gut. This is not the one.
But this first “good” story was different. When I wrote this story, we really cliqued with the first draft. I felt a connection with the protagonist and I felt like I could be myself around him. Something about it seemed right.
- Practice, practice, practice. You have to go on a lot of bad dates before you have a really good one. I was able to recognize that visceral feeling of connection, because I had spent many years writing for practice. I wasn’t writing for school assignments, blog posts, or to finish a book. I wrote for its own sake. Today I still write as an end in itself by doing morning pages every day. Writing for its own sake relieves much of the pressures that comes with writing. Including the pressure to impress readers, publish successfully, and achieve perfection. If you write for it’s own sake, you can do the real work with ease.
- Release all expectations. When you go on a first date with high expectations, you’re disappointed when the slightest thing goes wrong. When I wrote this story, I let go of my expectations. I stopped focusing on the kind of writer I thought I should be. As writers, exploring different avenues challenges us and keeps us fresh. Setting rigid expectations sets us up for failure, and we miss out on exciting new possibilities. What if you’re not meant to be with a tall, dark, bookish intellectual plot? What if you’re meant to be with a story who shares your dorky sense of humor and goes on adventures with you?
- Be Yourself. If you’re not authentic on a first date, people eventually catch on, and you’re unlikely to get a second date. With this story, I felt comfortable letting my personality shine. I was willing to lower the façade, be vulnerable, and allow the audience to see my true self.
- Follow your gut. When it’s the right one, you know in your gut. On most of my human dates, I knew within the first ten minutes whether I was attracted to the person or not. The same intuitive process can be applied to writing. Intuition is defined as, “direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process” or “keen and quick insight.” There is no formula for the style that is right for you. When you know, you know.
Finding you voice can be a challenging process. But ultimately if you keep at it and trust your instincts the right story will come along. Just remember, if you find yourself writing a story you’re not into or your don’t feel a connection with, don’t waste your time. But if you feel a spark, then don’t let that story be the one that got away. Plunge into it with all the courage you can muster.