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Finding Your Voice

This post is for all my writer friends out there.

If you go (or have gone) to writers’ workshops, you’ll know that the topic of voice is high up on the list of must-haves.  Supposedly, though, it’s an elusive thing, something you’ll know only when you’ve found it.  Something that’ll make the best agent or editor read straight through his or her subway stop.

J. T. Bushnell, a writing and literature professor at Oregon State University, wrote a wonderful and practical article entitled “The Unreliable Narrator” in the latest Poets & Writers Magazine (September/October 2011) that would be worth your while to read.

Bushnell tells of attending a reading by a fellow writer, Katherine Min (author of Secondhand World).  In the question-and-answer session following, someone asked her if she found other authors “creeping into her voice.”  Here’s Bushnell explaining:

She responded, “I wish!”  If only it were as easy, she explained, as reading a little James Joyce before she worked.  But no, she knew her own voice too well by then.  She pretended to be disappointed by this, but it was clear that she was pretending.  Her actual feelings about it seemed closer to satisfaction, even triumph.  She knew she had found her voice, and that was much more valuable to her than being able to mimic Joyce.

Bushnell goes on to ask, “But what was it she had found?  What is ‘voice,’ exactly, and where does it come from?”

Bushnell uses examples from J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life to illustrate that it doesn’t take “acrobatics of language” to have a compelling voice.  You have to have an ear for what’s right and what’s wrong.  Your words thrum if they’re right, twang if they’re not.  There’s a way to describe a character in such a way that you realize he or she is unreliable, which makes it both sad and funny, and it’s this dynamic that fleshes out your character.  As Bushnell says, “To achieve it, you have to know not only who your characters are but also who they pretend to be, not only what they care about but also what they say they care about, not only what ideas they live by but also how those ideas are false.  You have to figure out why your characters are blind, and how they’ve managed to maintain their blindness.  And you have to signal these disparities to the reader without revealing them to the character, or straining credibility by making the characters too blind.”

Needless to say, having an unreliable narrator helps.  It’s a valuable thing to learn to do.  Certainly, it’s not the only thing that makes voice, but it’ll give you a good start.

The article is worth the price of the magazine (all issues are!), so go buy it at your local bookstore…and absorb!

[Post image: Hear me out by riesp on stock.xchng]

3 of the latest Living the Questions podcasts, should you be interested.

Episode 26: Why Is It So Hard To Forgive, Part 1?
Episode 27: Why Is It So Hard To Forgive, Part 2?
Episode 28: Why Do I Feel Guilty?

2 Comments


  1. bob
    Aug 30, 2011

    u won’t believe this, and y should u, but……….i started reading “eve” and missed all my possible stops — ended up in kankakee — that otta tell u sumthin.


  2. Elissa
    Aug 30, 2011

    Ha, ha, they don’t have subways out in the desert!

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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