This is no. 32 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Would you agree that for the past forty years, automobiles have been evolving in such a way as they now all look alike? As though created from the same, basic mold? One of the most important things you can do for yourself as a writer is to find your voice. I don’t mean tone, which is another way of referring to how writing makes you feel. The tone of this piece for Poets & Writers is very different from the tone of my latest novel, or the tone of the philosophy books I edited several years ago.
I’m talking about voice. My voice can be squeezed into a 19th century corset for one novel, or spewed from the bowels of a werewolf for another, but it’s essentially the same underneath.
When I realized after writing a couple of early novels, that I hadn’t found my voice—that there was even something called a voice—I was devastated.
Had my years of labor all been for nothing? If my goal was to be published then yes. A total waste of time. But if my aim was to grow as an artist and as a person, then I had reason to be proud of myself.
Anyway, to spare you the same kind of pain, I’ve devised an exercise that will hopefully lead you closer than you’ve ever been to the fiery core of your own, utterly unique, narrative style.
1. Pick five books (or poems) you love, and five books (or poems) you dislike intensely, for a total of ten works.
2. Read the first page (or poem) several times, then rewrite it in such a way that you think, in your opinion, it’s better. Sometimes this means changing the order of words, or cutting them, or adding to them, or changing the tone completely. Don’t worry about offending anyone, no one knows you’re doing this except me, and I won’t tell.
3. This exercise, if done properly should take a fair amount of time. Once you’ve completed it, you’ll start to get a sense of who you are as a writer, and how your writing voice differs from the voices of others. Rewriting sections from writers you love is perhaps the most fruitful, because instead of emulating—you’re forced to be different. We each love certain writers for our own reasons. Rewriting their work will illuminate the subtle differences between your voice and theirs.
4. Once you find your voice, it will almost certainly evolve over time, the way we evolve naturally as artists. Look at the early work of Van Gogh, compared to his later work. Dubliners vs. Finnegans Wake. Early Beethoven sounds a little like Hayden—while late Beethoven is characteristic of the sound we associate with him. The core will always remain. Your voice is a gift to the world, so find it, nurture it, develop it, work it like a machine, give it the freedom of a vine—but above all, share it.
Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.