Department of Lost and Found Voices

“Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”— Sylvia Plath


After drafting The Style of Voice, and before posting it on my blog, I had pushed the voice issue aside. Then, a few months ago, I developed a new curiosity about voice after reading a Write to Done guest post by Gary Korisko. It’s the first in a series of three Write to Done posts Korisko has about how to write with confidence. I recommend reading Korisko’s post if you want to learn how to gain more confidence. I recommend his post if you are the most confident writer in the universe.

Excerpt from Gary Korisko’s post The Mental Games We Play: Write With Confidence—Part 1, #6. Forget about finding your voice“I swear to God that if I have to read one more post on ‘finding your voice’ I’ll delete the entire internet. I mean it. My finger is on the button. But seriously—your voice is simply the real you. It’s not an Easter egg that’s under a couch somewhere that you can just find one day if you look hard enough. The real you comes out when you write more and become more confident in what you’re doing. Focus on that and trust that your voice will show up as your experience and confidence grows.”

I found Korsko’s post interesting. I wasn’t sure what a writer’s voice is, but I liked his opinion of finding it. And I was tempted to write a blog post titled “Finding Your Voice in Ten Easy Steps,” so Gary could act on his threat to delete the Internet, and then we could all move happily on to the next stage of human evolution.

But something didn’t sit right with me. I said to myself, “Why am I agreeing with this guy when I’m not sure what he’s talking about? Why am I so sure that style and voice is the same thing? Maybe they really are two entirely different things. Why am I being so dismissive of finding a voice when it’s obviously a huge problem for many writers? Anyway, I need to know what writers think about their craft—think about our craft.”

My questions embarrassed me. As a fiction editor, I should understand why finding a voice is important to other writers—especially new writers. I need to understand all problems writers have, whether I have the same problems myself or not. So, I decided to learn more about what writers mean when they can’t find their voice, and how I might be able to help them.

Over the years, I’ve collected half a ton of books on writing, grammar, etymology, and linguistics. A good portion of my personal library came from garage sales or the 3 for $1.00 cart parked in front of used books stores. I’ve also bought writing books from and Powell’s City of Books. In addition to my books, I have Wikipedia and other online resources; that is, if I make use of them before somebody gets Gary Korisko pissed off enough to make the entire Internet vanish. I was well prepared to end my curiosity about finding a voice.

Most of my writing books published before the 1990s mention voice when explaining active/passive verbs, or when explaining the first, second, or third person narrative voice. A few of my last century books suggest that voice is a synonym of style. After skimming through 150 pounds of books, I started thinking that finding an academic explanation of a writer’s voice might be harder than finding a missing voice. I’ll use two of my ancient books to explain why it was difficult for me to find a definition of voice that would help me understand what other writers seem to instinctively know.

The first book is Telling Writing, a textbook by Ken Macrorie (1971). Fifteen or twenty years ago, I bought a tattered copy at a garage sale, and it’s probably not much different from newer editions. Telling Writing is a pretty good book. In a fourteen page chapter called “Sound and Voice,” Macrorie writes about “finding your voice,” “finding the right voice,” and “finding a true voice,” along with other voice related topics. Usually when Macrorie uses the term voice, he writes about how word choices contribute to the narrative, the characters, and the setting[s] in a story. But I doubt that “Finding a true voice gives a piece of writing unity….” has much to do with “finding my voice” in the personal sense that writers today use the term.

The second book is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (1994). Bird by Bird has a seven page chapter called “Finding Your Voice.” Anne Lamott does not write about the same voice Ken Macrorie writes about. In her brief chapter, Anne mentions style five times and voice ten times. In a few sentences, she suggests that voice and style are interchangeable. Most of what she says about voice has to do either with emerging writers chronically trying to emulate famous writers, or with new writers afraid of offending people close to them—particularly their family members.

Voila! I finally realize what some writers mean by not being able to find their voice. The way I see it, familial or social inhibitions kill more writers than homicidal spouses, drug ODs, cirrhosis of the liver, or car crashes combined. The inability to stop imitating other writers might be the next biggest killer. A writer doesn’t have to stop breathing to be dead.

My only problem with Bird by Bird is that Anne Lamott loves fiction, and her students seem interested in their personal experiences—memoir. People who write about their lives find it more difficult to shape a story than people who invent plots, characters, interactions, dialogue, and settings. Even when fiction writers start out basing a story on actual events or modeling characters on real people, the writer almost always ends up re-imaging characters and other components in the story.

By the time a writer is finishing her third draft, a character in the first draft who is five-foot three with straight black hair is now six-foot even and has curly red hair; a few characters are revised out entirely, a couple of new characters have entered the story; the setting moved from Seattle to Denver; and the theme of the real-life story has dramatically—or humorously—changed. By the time the writer finishes her fifth draft, there’s little more than a dim memory of the incidents or the people who inspired the story. If the writer’s rich Aunt Hilda suspects that the crack ho in Chapter 4 is based on her life before she married a banker and became a church lady, the writer can easily deny it. “Oh, Aunt Hilda, you know you’ve never been to Colorado, and you don’t have curly hair.” And Aunt Hilda will say, “Guess you are right, dear.”

As fiction writers write and revise, they gradually get over their fear of offending people close to them. But it’s not that easy for people who write memoir. Emerging writers trying to write a memoir either have an interesting story, or they need therapeutic writing to rid themselves of emotional pain through catharsis. Either way, people who write memoirs can be more plagued than fiction writers are by the burden of needing approval from friends or family.

Anne Lamott’s solution to finding your voice is to “Write as if your parents are dead.” This advice goes for your minister, priest, rabbi, best friend, or whoever else is peering disapprovingly over your shoulder. “And the truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice,” Anne says. By “your experience,” I’m sure she means the experiences of your individual imagination, as well as anything you might have actually done, said, felt, observed, or heard. Your story is born in your imagination, and it cannot develop unless you write it the way you want—not the way John Grisham, J. K. Rowling, or Toni Morrison might write it. If you have a problem finding your voice, you must absolutely—frequently and confidently—remind yourself that your voice is good enough and will grow stronger as you write. You do not need someone else’s voice to tell your story. After all, you are a writer, not a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Now that I understand what finding your voice means, I’m more comfortable agreeing with all of Gary Korisko’s 10 recommendations for gaining more confidence. Getting over a serious problem is not easy. No one should ever tell a writer with the problem of finding her or his voice to “just get over it!” The solution usually involves a process of gradual change, not an instant cure. Overcoming fear can be difficult. But once you are willing to change, eventually you’ll learn how to stop searching for your voice, and one day while you’re writing, your voice will find you. “Hi, I’m your voice. I hear you’ve been looking for me. Betcha didn’t think I’d sound this interesting, did ya? Well, I’m here now, so let’s get some more words on the page.”

For different take on “finding your voice,” check out Mary Jaksch’s Write to Done post Is ‘Finding Your Voice’ as a Writer Just Plain Laughable?

If you are not yet ready to become willing to start writing, I hope that one day you’ll make the decision to become willing to become willing. And I’m offering a money back guarantee if you complete your first draft and your voice doesn’t greet you.

Wishing you the best life you can make,



2 Responses to Department of Lost and Found Voices

  1. Dixie January 17, 2015 at 10:04 am #

    My kids have talked about their frustration/struggle to change their voice in college papers (per their professors feedback)–particularly to stop writing in a passive voice. These are research papers not fiction. Is this a “style ” issue rather than a “voice” issue? Or do different rules apply to academic writing?

    • Drunkespeare January 17, 2015 at 8:06 pm #

      Thankxczs for stopping by Dixie. I understand the frustration over having professors urging students not to use the passive voice, or telling them to change their writing style altogether. Regardless of the type of writing—academic, technical, fiction, or graffiti on gas station bathroom walls— “stop writing in a passive voice” is bullshit. Sometimes a passive verb construction makes a sentence clearer than an active verb. Sometimes not.

      For some types of writing—especially scientific papers—students are encouraged to write in the “objective passive.” But the many excellent scientific papers are not written in the objective passive, and many of them use “I” and “we.” It all depends on what you want your writing to do.

      The use of active or passive verbs is a clarity issue, not a “voice or style” issue. But your style (or your “voice,” if you choose to call it that) is affected by your choice of verbs and other parts of speech, as well as by your punctuation (“is affected by your choice of verbs” is passive). Your voice or style is an “everything about you and your writing” issue. Your worldview and your feelings have a lot to do with your style or your voice. To sum this up, voice/style is what you want to say and what you consider the most effective way of saying it.

      My first post on the style/voice debate, “The Style of Voice,” might answer your questions. I hope you got something useful out of this—if nothing better than more good questions. Stop by again, soon.

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