Finding your voice
It was one of the hardest things for me to figure out what my voice was. I didn’t understand what was meant by the word or the concept. It was only after many years of practicing that I realised the meaning: that the way you write must be yours only.
Although here I break apart my thoughts on finding a voice, I believe that, like most things to do with writing and creativity, we do it without thinking. Not everyone has to analyse in this way before they set out to write something, but rather do it instinctively. This brings me back to the work I do in theatre, on collaboration and collective creativity, where I seek ways to understand how people work instinctively and use that in the rehearsal and creation of plays.
IN THE BEGINNING …
I was always aware that some times it was easy to write. Like, in the olden days when we wrote letters, there were times when the writing swirled out of your hand, a certain flow occurred, words came easily, you were in that certain frame of mind (what is now called a ‘zone’?). It was a pleasure to write and know that this letter was heading to another person who would receive it after a few days, and they would pick up on your mood and excitement.
We are all influenced by what we have read, what we are exposed to as we grow up: the books, the plays, the talk, the TV, the films. One evening about twenty years ago, I was travelling over the county bounds from Kerry back home on a summer’s evening. For the Book on One slot on RTE 1, the reader started Alice in Wonderland and, I swear, I was transported back to my childhood bedroom in Clonakilty as I read that hardback book, with a green colour with the sketch of Alice on the front cover. It felt like I was seeing the exact same images that I saw in my mind as a child, like that file had been retrieved from the back of my computer mind where it hadn’t been opened for a long time. It was quite a weird experience … though joyful too.
WORDS THAT RESONATE
It is only very recently that I am aware of what resonate means … it’s one of these over-used words that, again, I haven’t quite understood. But, when a word or words really mean something to you, really make you stop and take note, really explain something that is almost impossible to put into words, then, that’s it, that is the resonance, in my view. Of course, because of my interest in music, I see resonance as relating to vibration, and my imagination takes me to the place where my body is responding to the words on a physical level … vibrating electrons–– if that’s any help to you!! In relation to the music analogy, it also reminds me of those songs where you are listening and one note that comes in an unexpected place will make you stop, or hits somewhere within you.
The parts involved in practicing …
It was always said of the uilleann pipes that it took twenty-one years to learn to play the instrument: seven years to get the basics, seven years to practice and the final seven to play and become proficient. I think that may be true also of writing. As you continue to write, to ‘show up to the page’ you become more confident of the words and arranging them in the way that is best for you.
Part of the practice is copying the work of others, unknowingly, and certainly as you start writing. The style of a Frank O’Connor or Seamus Heaney. Can we help that? I don’t think so. It’s that resonance again. How they speak to us, what these favored authors choose to write about. All in that writing we respond to must be tried and splurged out.
Part of the voice is the tone in which you write––how you put the words on the page, how you order them, what feeling you will convey. A piece of writing by Bredan Behan will be very different to James Joyce, not only in its subject matter but in its tone.
In relation to the matter of tone, part of the figuring out in my own writing has to do with the tone of the particular piece of writing I am working on at any time. That could be the more serious version of ‘Eileen’ or the more caricature version when she appeared in the comedy / cabaret shows. I think part of my difficulty has been that I have a variety of tones I use. For example, how and when I write poetry is utterly different to my other writing, it’s far less playful and far more serious.
So too the lexicon you use becomes part of your voice. Of course, we need to work on making the writing clear, and often this can be done simply, with words that are familiar and unchallenging. But I also believe in working and reaching for the best possible sequence of words. Sometimes one must find the precise word to convey what it is you are saying. Unless you know the words how can you find them?
Apart from the trusty Dictionary, Thesaurus and Mr Google for synonyms and antonyms, writerly friends with great vocabularies, I’ve now come across The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. I don’t have it yet, but Christmas is coming!!
Similar to that is this Writer’s Emotion Circle.
Also included in this area of practice is the question of timing. Does it comes from my interest in music that I note the timing of the words, the sounds of them as they run––on the page––as they are read aloud. Reading your writing aloud to yourself (or through a computer program for this purpose) is recommended by most writers, to hear how it is outside of your brain.
Recently, my sister-in-law gave me Silence by John Cage. Remember, he was the composer who gave you 4′ 33” of silence! It’s just another way of thinking entirely … his ideas on his processes, written as he would compose a piece of music. But, it makes sense, somehow. I read them with the pauses that he has created with space and punctuation.
Speaking of punctuation, this blog is just not long enough for what needs to be said about the joys of the comma … not to mention the semi-colon!
And I am curtailed also in looking at space and spaciousness, these too need a longer space in order to set out the thoughts. Another blog!
Finally, I come to structure. looking at the overall frame of the writing or the piece you are working on. And through the work of writing again, rewriting, honing, shaping, editing, reviewing, receiving feedback, accepting and trying again, you find that voice.
I presume others find it more quickly. For me, it took a long time to process and understand.
Finding a voice
And then, when you have all of this figured out, what your voice is … you have to turn to each of your characters to find a voice for them, you have to find an overarching voice for your piece of writing.
This comes from understanding your characters deeply–-doing the work to ensure that you do know them. I think it also comes from the practice of writing, as you build your understanding of the craft, the skill of writing and confidence growth. And then you know … somewhere in your body, that it is right. As you mature in your writing, you have a greater sense of confidence that the aim will work, you have certain tools or techniques to help you get there, or you just set it aside, knowing that this will not have been a wasted effort, but any practice brings you forward in your learning and understanding.
For example, Jeremy Massey speaks about his fantastic character, Paddy Buckley from the book The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley and the difference moving from the 3rd person to the 1st person point of view changed the book for him. From being removed from Paddy, he as the writer, and consequently the reader, is right bang in the middle of Paddy’s mind and his thoughts, we are intimately with him as he moves through his crises and the decisions he makes.
Hearing your voice
It’s another matter entirely to consider hearing your voice. I mean by this, how important it is to hear your story, your accent, and your interests reflected back to you in word. I mean in film, on the radio, on the TV, from journalists, reporters, in books. And if you don’t hear it, then what impact does that have? And what does it mean for your viewpoint and your perspective?
There’s an issue of responsibility for me, on the part of those making the decisions and in positions of authority and power. But this is a discussion for another day … I’m just planting the seed!
Can I just make one political point here please?? I note in writing these blog posts that the greater portion of the literature and other art influences were male and masculine. I am searching for the feminine as I write … I have mentioned Edna O’Brien and Lady Gregory. Nell McCafferty too featured strongly from a political viewpoint, and Maria Callas, a beloved soprano voice in our house, with Mary Black coming later, but there weren’t too many female playwrights, or writers. Thankfully, that is now being redressed.