The Writer’s Voice

In writing, who is the person who speaks? What is the connection between the author and their voice? The critic Al Alvarez says that ‘finding your own voice as a writer is in some ways like the tricky business of becoming an adult’. It is a way of ‘feeling free in your own skin’ and ‘it can come in any form provided it is alive and urgent enough to take hold of the reader and make him understand that what is being said really matters.’ It’s unsurprising then, that one of the analogies Alvarez uses to get to grips with this development of the voice is the psychotherapeutic setting. The therapist sits in an open, listening way with the patient, and both of them ‘must listen for the true-speaking self among all the inauthentic ones, to find it and then stick with it – without bluster or pretence or repetitiveness or excuses.’ I really liked this, the idea that the writing voice is like one’s best adult self, that it comes from the most authentic, intransigent part of oneself, although that doesn’t mean that the voice only says wise or sensible things.

It made me think of the sort of situation I try to cultivate with my troubled students – not, you understand, that this is something I can in any way simply create – but the kind of situation where we can do good, transformative work. It can only come about if both of us are feeling open and yet quite safe; there has to be a lot of trust in the room, and a great deal of listening, too. It isn’t easy to get to this state of mind, often one of us is too hasty to ask for help or to give it, or that awkward worm of compliance wriggles in, because teaching too often asserts the illusion that compliance is necessary. Sometimes one of us is too defended, or too emotionally vulnerable. But when all these difficulties have been overcome, then finally there is space for real creativity – we can both of us think differently yet be quite true to ourselves. The truth emerges, and we can welcome it without fear, no matter what needs to be said. ‘The authentic voice may not be the one you want to hear,’ Alvarez cautions. ‘Sometimes it goes against your daylight principles, though if you try to clean up your act you kill the life of what you have to say.’ How unfortunately true! I wonder whether the situation I try to create in my room is analogous to the one that needs to inhabit the mind of the writer. There must be openness, listening, acceptance, and patience towards oneself, and then the true voice can come forth.

For Alvarez, voice is quite different from style, and he quotes Sylvia Plath to show what he means. Plath was trained in the style of high art, and there is much in her poetry that is elegant and mellifluous, but her voice emerges, Alvarez suggests, at the points where she comes a great deal less ‘amenable’. I nodded in recognition here; it’s the unamenable bits of Plath I really like, the bits where she slashes through her beautiful images with something searing and discontented, or makes those repetitions that chill the skin. The effect is that of peeling back a mask, and the poetry holds you in fascinated horror, the sort of horror that makes you say ‘go on, do it again! That felt so real!’ You never know when that acid will erode the surface, and leave something both clean and shocking behind. Alvarez is rather ambivalent about the sort of style that can also be called ‘fine writing’ and I guiltily agree with him. Fine writing can be ‘an exquisite sensibility exposing itself for admiration’, and whilst I feel I ought to admire it more than I do, my taste takes me away from writing that announces itself as writing and always towards the straight talkers, or what Ford Maddox Ford described as ‘ a limpidity of expression that should make prose sound like someone talking in a rather low voice into the ear of the person he liked.’

That’s what I want to feel as a reader; I want to feel someone there, compelled to tell me a story because they are sure only I can truly understand it. There are four authors whose voices are perfect for me – Colette, Willa Cather, Kafka and Rilke. In each case you can feel the heart beating and the mind thinking behind the voice. The book by Alvarez I’m reading, The Writer’s Voice, is quite interesting and provocative, but it’s also rather jumbled; however, it does make me want to spend more time with those favourite authors and their pitch perfect voices.

13 thoughts on “The Writer’s Voice

  1. Oooh, loved this. It reminded me of your earlier post about the “style-less” writers, whose books move on at a great pace, but who are curiously colorless. I recently came across an author whose voice is such a perfect fit for me that reading this book is like I’m talking to myself in a way that is immensely relaxing, which is rather funny because the subject material of these books isn’t very enjoyable.

  2. that doesn’t mean that the voice only says wise or sensible things

    Is that ever the truth! I speak, here, only for myself.

    Dickens is a good example of the distinction between style and voice. He is a parodist and mimic, hopping from style to style, yet is always somehow recognizably himself, very strongly so. It took me a while to realize how stylistically varied he was, just because the voice was so strong.

    Perhaps the strong playwrights are even better examples. They write works that are filled with “voices,” but are still clearly identifiable as Shakespeare, Molière, or Chekhov.

    Your approach to this subject is wise. I doubt voice can be taught, exactly, but “cultivated” – that is a valuable task for a teacher.

  3. I loved this post, LL, voice being quite a vexatious matter around here. I agree with you on Rilke, although am limited to translations, but feel I must now read some Cather, whose work I do not know. Oh, for a blessed day’s reading!!!

  4. I have to agree, I liked this post a great deal too. Your choice for one of the pitch perfect voices astonishes me. Kafka, really? The other two I know, Rilke and Colette, I agree. Interesting you should mention Kafka and I will spend some time thinking about it and about my possible choices.

  5. Pingback: Finding Your Voice — The Writer’s Greatest Challenge « Broadside

  6. Very much enjoyed this. Interesting how there are voices that we find pitch perfect and others that grate even if the story is good. What is it, do you think, that causes a voice to be pitch perfect for some and nails on a chalkboard to others? a huge question, I know, but I am curious to know what you think 🙂

  7. What an interesting post and distinction between style and voice. I’ve always thought of writing as only what I can tell–that’s an interesting turnaround, as telling a story only you can understand.

  8. I’m not sure I can bring myself to accept Alvarez’s analogy (‘finding your own voice as a writer is in some ways like the tricky business of becoming an adult’) Frankly, I don’t think anyone ‘becomes’ an adult: nobody leaves their childhood behind like a cocoon. Growing up’s more like a gradual change in state, an acclimatization, like wandering into a night fog, in which you only slowly remember that you’ve lost sight of the stars. I’m not sure this is much like writing at all, however much guesswork is going on. Writing is more considered, fraught, fought over; it is considerably harder than getting older.

    Besides, ‘adulthood’ is essentially a political category. I think you could argue, actually, that a writer’s ‘voice’ is also a political category but I don’t think that’s what Alvarez is getting at.

  9. I think my taste in voice is pretty similar to yours. I do like fine writing and that kind of style that really shows its twiddley bits off (I’m thinking of things like Victorian pastiche here, but you’re probably thinking of something much more high art). But I think my heart belongs to the kind of voice where the style is something you almost don’t notice. What is being said feels so stark and strikingly true and the true feeling of the tone conceals the incredibly disciplined style…not sure I’m explaining very well, but there’s a bluntness to this kind of voice that sadly means it can mostly be found in painful tales, because that’s where it’s most suited. Does that sound similar to what you’re talking about, or totally different?

  10. Thanks so much for this post, LL. I’ve printed it out and put it into a folder I have labeled “Craft.” Voice is a very tough area for me to master as a writer. I think what gets in my way is my essentially guarded nature – I don’t speak much about my own emotions. What I’ve noticed is that my characters don’t either. So, for the moment, there’s something about my fiction that feels stiff and at-arms-length, which I’m struggling a lot with. I went to hear author ZZ Packer at an event in New York this week and she shared an story that illustrates: she sent two stories to a magazine once, one that was “fine, important, literary-sounding” and another that she just threw in and didn’t think much about. She wrote it just to write it, not so much to “sound literary.” The magazine chose the second one to publish.

  11. I just heard an author who is not an author speak at our library book meeting–“Dana Hand” on the recent historical novel “Deep Creek,” which was named a Washington Post Best Novel of 2010. It’s a rare case of “one pen name, two fiction collaborators,” and to make everything more intriguing, one writer is male, and one is female. (He does the sex, she does the violence.) They told us they greatly admire Hemingway and Cather, which shows up their prose: deceptively simple, but freighted with feeling, meaning. Both have written many nonfiction books under their own names (Anne Matthews, William Howarth), but in nonfiction, they told us, the voice-on-the-page is not at all like their “Dana Hand” manner. I was fascinated. Apparently he is the natural storyteller, who drafts a first fast version out of the research they compile together, and she is the novelist, who stretches and chops and remixes and expands and adds color and character. Two people, three voices.

  12. David – now I am consumed with curiosity as to who that author might be! I know exactly what you mean – I love that being talked to, and once the voice is right, it really doesn’t matter what the story is – it’s all hugely enjoyable. It sort of tickled me that the people who responded to this post were the bloggers who I think of as having the most distinct voices of their own. I’d recognise something you had written wherever it appeared.

    Amateur Reader – now again, you’re one of the bloggers with the most distinct voices that I know. Your voice is so full of character. Yup, see exactly what you mean about Dickens. I hadn’t thought of the playwrights at all, because you’d assume polyphony. But of course, someone like Moliere (sorry, still haven’t located my accents) or Chekov or indeed Shakespeare are incredibly recognisable. That quite blows my mind – to think of all those disparate voices being united in a fundamental root.

    Doctordi – I do wish you some lovely peaceful reading time! I remember how much I hungered for it when my son was little. I think I could pick a Doctordi post out at a hundred paces from amongst a seething mass of other people’s words, so you’re doing just fine as far as I’m concerned. 🙂

    Caroline – oh I know, Kafka may seem an eccentric choice. But certain of his books haunt me – Brief an den Vater is probably my favourite, but the short stories are all incredible. I’d love to know which literary voices you respond to best.

    Stefanie – that is such a good question and such a hard one. I’ve been pondering it here and there for the past couple of days but still haven’t come up with any sort of neat response. I think there are elements of recognition in it – similar mindsets perhaps, and subjective inclinations towards either clear or lyrical prose. What else, I’m not quite sure. I’ll have to keep thinking about it as I return to the authors I love. It may end up justifying a post of its own!

    Lilian – I love your formulation, too. The story only I can tell is a really intriguing concept, and one that’s also got me thinking.

    Mark – I completely agree that writing is harder than getting older, but not that it’s harder than growing up. I also agree that we carry our childhoods around forever, but our attitude towards them changes profoundly over time. I don’t dispute that – but maybe voice changes too, and that authors who want long careers go through different periods the same as painters do. I don’t understand what you mean by adulthood as a political category, unless you mean old enough to vote; and that doesn’t mean much at all. But I do think that as we age, and make peace with the past, and figure out what’s really important and become ever more ourselves that writing gets easier because our voices stabilise. That’s certainly how it’s been for me.

    Bookgazing – that sounds completely identical to me. I don’t particularly like it when the style gets in the way of what’s being said. I would much rather listen to that kind of voice that’s lucid and has fascinating things to tell me, than the voice that seeks to elevate every kind of ordinary situation to new heights with clever language.

    Melissa – what an interesting anecdote! And so intriguing also to hear about your own quest for the right voice. I think if you are restrained, it might be worthwhile making a thing of it, so that the restraint is visible, and that it gets to speak, if you see what I mean. I’m all for enhancing oneself in writing rather than trying to change bits. Sometimes it works, sometimes not – it’s all trial and error, isn’t it?

    Janet – ooh I have long been fascinated by how two people could manage to write a book together. That sounds so interesting. I’m going to have to look out for those authors now and see what they write. Thank you for that!

  13. I love Willa Cather’s voice, too. I’m not sure I can always tell the difference between voice and style to be honest–but in your response to a comment that the ‘voice seeks to elevate’ with clever language–I thought of Shirley Hazzard, who I really did enjoy but got caught up so often on her use of language. I think Somerset Maugham is one of my own choices–I did feel like he was telling me a particular story–and got very wrapped up in it.

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