Whenever I wrote essays back in high school, I remember being given a rubric explaining the rationale for the grades we received. There were various categories including organisation, word choice, etc. But there was one category which I never understood, and that was: voice.
My initial confusion stemmed from these questions: wasn’t everything I wrote written in my voice? Was it not me who was speaking?
I was always unable to achieve the highest grade of 5; how did my teachers know this wasn’t my voice? Were they trying to impose an ideal voice onto me? As a result, I felt denied, my existence invalidated. Well, if my teachers believed this wasn’t my true voice, and I adjusted it to write in an accommodating way that would allow me to attain a 5, wouldn’t that mean I’m being unfaithful to my voice?
Kurt Vonnegut makes this insightful (and humorous) remark about writing voices other than his own:
What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.
5 years later, I still don’t quite know how the ‘voice’ category on the essay rubric works. But thankfully the ‘voice’ for creative writing is different from academic writing, the former allowing you more freedom, more flexibility. The Wikipedia article on ‘Writer’s voice‘ defines it as ‘the individual writing style of an author, a combination of their common usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc.’.
First, you can breathe a sigh of relief because your voice is your own, no one else’s. Your ‘individual writing style’ which no one else can produce. But secondly, ‘a combination of their common usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc.’ reveals that it’s a lot more complicated than I’d like it to be.
People keep telling me, and thus I keep telling myself, I need to ‘develop my voice’. What exactly does that mean? I don’t know for certain, but I have a hypothesis.
- You cannot be a writer unless you’re a reader. When you begin writing, you very naturally construct your writing style through a replication, or a respectful mimicry, of a book or author you found particularly brilliant. As you read and write more, you begin to discern, pick out, and adopt bits and pieces of various styles which feel natural to you. You begin to combine them in an original and unique way wholly your own, and possibly unlike any other voice out there; after all, despite the common building blocks, there are endless amalgamations.
- Think of it in terms of speech. When you begin speaking as a toddler, you imitate the words coming out of your parents’ mouths. As you grow older, you’ll still be strongly influenced by the way people speak around you, by the cultural environment you find yourself in. But once you reach a certain age in your late teens or early 20s (and with dreaded puberty a thing of the past), you speak with your own voice: a certain tone, pitch, accent, word choice, etc.
So the question is: have I already found my writing voice? I’ve been reading and writing for as long as I can remember, for about 20 years. My voice has changed, transformed, been mutilated and restored. Yes, even the most critically acclaimed writers say you’ll never stop improving until you die. But is that referring solely to the technical aspects, or also voice? Does that mean one’s voice constantly and continuously evolves for the rest of one’s life?
In addition to being a writer, I’m also a musician. I began singing seriously when I was 15, and it took me 5 years to find my singing voice. The thing is, that was only the beginning. The 5 years were essentially spent imitating and experimenting. Once I had a better sense of my own singing voice, I began honing it through practice and experience, and naturally, there’s always space to improve.
What about my writing voice? If I consider the 20 years of reading and writing as my experimental phase, it means that I’m still near the starting line. In fact, I might still be standing at the starting line. How much longer will it take for me to discover my voice; or have I already found it and just don’t realise? The whole prospect is rather daunting, to be honest.
On a positive note: ever since starting this blog, I’ve had a decent number of people inform me they enjoy reading what I write. I’ve received comments that my voice is engaging and easy to read. It’s true, I’m confident in telling stories or anecdotes when I talk to people, and I guess that manifests itself through my blog posts, the majority of which are written in first person. The challenge for me is to develop (or find) my voice when I write in third person. Or is the point of writing in third person to allow me to write in voices not my own?
Neil Gaiman gives this indispensable advice:
Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.
There are better writers than me out there, there are smarter writers, there are people who can plot better – there are all those kinds of things, but there’s nobody who can write a Neil Gaiman story like I can.
I spent much of the past 3 or 4 years worrying endlessly (and needlessly) about whether or not I had indeed ‘found my voice’. It’s important to develop one’s voice (whatever that might mean exactly) but if it is your first and foremost concern, you need to change your mindset. It’s stifling. It prevents further progress and improvement.
The moment I let that worry go, I felt completely free, free to write without inhibitions and fear. I trust that the more I write, the closer I’ll come to finding my voice. I’d just be wasting time if I waited till I was certain before I began writing; in fact, I don’t know if I’ll ever be certain. I doubt any published author had a specific turning point, a sudden epiphany where they thought: ‘Hey! I just found my voice right this moment! Now I can write whatever I want and it’ll be perfect and indisputably brilliant!’ They just wrote, and wrote, and kept writing.
And that’s what I have to do. Nobody can write a Justin Lau story like I can.
That’s what you have to do. Nobody can write a [insert name] story like you can.
Writing is like growing up. No matter how old you get, you never stop learning, never stop improving, never stop discovering who you are and were made to be. Don’t ever stop communicating what you and you alone are wholly capable of expressing.