100 Words – Let’s Talk About Voice
I’m tucked into a corner on the second floor of my favorite used bookstore housed in an old renovated water mill – a corner with a weather-worn stuffed chair and a window that looks out over the river. Billie Holiday is crooning, “It Had to be You”, through my headphones.
What a voice.
A voice lacking in range, professionally described as “thin”, and bereft of any formal training. The New York Herald Tribune said of a 1946 performance that it “had little variation in the melody of her songs, with no change in tempo”.
And yet a voice that influenced Frank Sinatra, and “changed the art of American pop vocals forever”, according to critic John Bush. In fact, the few songs she helped co-write have become jazz standards.
How can it be that someone on one hand so undeveloped and thin in her talent touched so many so deeply?
She found her voice. Her distinct voice. An accomplishment few realize in their lifetime. It is said that where she lacked in technical ability she more than made up for with the emotion she injected into her singing. When you listen to Billie, it’s not that her voice is beautiful or amazing, it’s that you feel she’s in the room with you, stroking your hair while she sings. Her voice touches you.
Just like good writing.
Think about it…every author you’ve ever loved, he/she had a particular voice you were drawn to. Not the stories themselves – because the same story written by another author is not the same story – but the voice telling the story.
Much of the writing advice I’ve come across in the last year is either along the lines of, ”just write dammit”, or focuses on various technical aspects of writing. And yes, if you intend to be serious about the craft of writing, than you must commit to learning the craft of writing, and you must, above all, write dammit.
But your voice, your one-of-a-kind, distinct voice is your gift to the world, to your own life in fact, regardless of whether you even write at all. Your voice is the heart of it all – the marrow inside your stories, and we’re going to milk your bones this October.
Un-drowning Your Voice
Look, I can’t presume to know what your life is like on the daily, but I know if it even closely resembles mine word-nerdlings, there’s a whole lot of background noise, interruptions, and distractions. This post, if I had had no interruptions, would have been published at about 6p.m. With distractions and interruptions I’m going to just squeeze it in before midnight. If I don’t gnaw off my own arm out of frustration first.
I also know that I see a lot of folks putting the cart before the horse – trying to be cleverlicious on Twitter, joining groups, reading blogs, counting visitors. Don’t be embarrassed, we’ve all fallen into that trap collectively. The brain is a crazy organ that is fooled easily and if you put a visible friend-counter on something, people are going to start counting and comparing and by gawd the brain is going to want to keep up.
Why? Because every new follower is a validation we must be on the right track. We know those published people over there, and those famous people over there, and those bloggers over there who got book deals from their blogs, they’ve got huge numbers of followers, so if we can just drive up our numbers – bam! The magic’s bound to happen.
There’s more to that story though. Many of those people started their work before the social networks exploded. They had time to find their voice before they had the tools to use it. The friends I know who are on their way to publishing are not on Twitter, and they rarely poke their heads up on Facebook either. One friend whose first book comes out soon only this week finally created a Facebook page for herself as an author. She’s been too busy writing, reading, writing, developing her craft, and polishing her voice.
Your voice needs space and time.
My point is not “GET OFF THAT DAMN TWITTER”, but that you need uninterrupted time, hours of it if you can get it, to find and develop your voice. Just swap out “writing novels” for “finding your voice” in this quote.
Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless. – Neal Stephenson
So here’s what we’re going to do.
I want you to do three things for me this week before you write your 100 words:
- Crazy but true, try to carve out a four hour time slot this week. No distractions, no interruptions allowed. If you can’t get four, take what you can get.
- Bring a timer with you and for the first 10 minutes, let your mind settle. Count your breaths or lay on your back and stare at a spot on the ceiling – whatever will help the sediment of your stirred mind settle.
- Now think about the prompt. Work with it, walk around it, try different exercises like free writing, or talking to yourself out loud about the prompt. And then write the simplest version of what comes to you without thinking how others will receive it. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “write to please just one person”, not the whole world. If it feels right, write the 100 words more than once until it feels genuine, until it resonates.
Let me know in comments how this all goes for you. Like if you feel a smidge closer to your voice after doing this. Like if you were able to secure hours of alone time (and please, tell me how you did it – I need this myself) and how many.
Finally, I’m again throwing something new at you with the prompt. Instead of a word, I’m pulling from tip #3 of Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story, which is,
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
That “character” can be you, or fictional, or whatever way this prompt comes at you, but it’s about wanting a glass of water. Now go on, get out of here, you’ve got important work to do.