When you are not confident as a writer you hold back. Readers can tell when you’re holding back, even if they have never read you before. This is so because that which is held back by a loss of confidence is uniqueness more than anything else.
Don’t be afraid to write like you. But there is a problem to this: how are you as a writer? It’s not like what you write even now is acceptable because it gets a democratic or subjective free pass under the banner of I Wrote This. I’m talking about a writer’s voice, and a voice does not come without both passion and hard work.
Writing Like You
Think of painting. Do you remember the painting shows that used to come on PBS? A painter would start with a blank canvas and in half an hour there would be a field or a mountain or a river. And you were supposed to paint along with him.
I don’t know if that really would work or not. What I do know is if that is all you learn about painting you will never stand out even among other average painters. Think of the masters. All of them are great, but a Turner is different than a Van Gogh, which are both different from a Rembrandt. They painted the way they wanted to paint with a style as individual as a fingerprint.
Also consider music. You may hear a piece and be able to identify it as Tchaikovsky or Brahms, maybe even Bach or Beethoven. Why? Because they each have a distinctive sound to their music which is often hard to pin down with exact descriptions, yet you know it when you hear it.
Caravaggio did not become great because he tried to paint like everyone else, or for that matter, like anyone else. Likewise, if Wagner had decided he would compose just like Meyerbeer or Mendelssohn, we would never have anything as fabulous as the Ring Cycle of operas. Likewise, a writer’s voice comes from the quintessence of uniqueness.
But this uniqueness does not come easily. It is cultivated and distilled through personality, life experience, and world view. It is also concentrated by the writer’s choice of subject matter, vocabulary, phrasing, and descriptions. A writers’ voice comes from conscious choices and innate reactions. Before you write a word truly as you, the writer must look inside and determine What do I want to write? as well as Why do I want to write? Someone who fails at introspection fails as a writer.
So you can either be a Mozart or a Salieri. These two men were musical rivals in Vienna of at the end of the 1700s. Salieri wrote the way he was supposed to and Mozart wrote the way he wanted to. Salieri enjoyed some notoriety in his day, but who is still performed even now? Don’t write like everyone else or like anyone else. Write like you, but take the pains to find what you as a writer must be like first.
Why would anyone be a writer if they’re just going to write like everyone else? (tweet this comment)
Following The Rules
Just because you are true to your nature in something you write, that doesn’t mean that it works, or even that it is good. Having your own confident writer’s voice is no guarantee that everything you produce is beyond correction or improvement. Some foolishly feel that having some unique author’s voice is license to do whatever they want as long as they genuinely think they should.
Picasso did not wake up day still as an amateur and decide to paint “Guernica” or “The Prostitutes of Avignon.” He commented how it took him twenty years to learn to paint by the rules so then he could learn again how to break them.
But a writer’s voice is not just about breaking rules in the name of being unique and genuine. There are some things about literature that will always be true. Show me, don’ tell me. Watch your modifiers. Avoid passive verbs. I could go on, but you know what I mean. For example, stream-of-consciousness writing was new when Joyce starting using it. It clearly went against conventions and norms, but still followed the rules of good storytelling. And just as Joyce is unique, so is each work. That is what makes Ulysses great, and The Dubliners, and Finnegan’s Wake. Joyce wrote like Joyce, and still each novel is its own. And when someone like Hemmingway decides to write in stream-of-consciousness, he doesn’t sound like he’s aping Joyce. So when you read “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” you don’t feel like your reading anything other than genuine Hemmingway.
A strong and individualize writer’s voice comes down to not only still following the rules, but following your own rules. Cormac McCarthy formats his dialogue differently than I do, but it works for him. But if I formatted my dialogue like him, it wouldn’t work for me. Both Twain and Faulkner are great Southern writers, but their voices are so different, and yet each works for them.
Be bold enough to find your own voice, and be brave enough to use it. If you lack the confidence to write with uniqueness, you will become another forgotten Salieri. While your voice is not just being different for the sake of being different, it must still be your own. Writing with a voice you have put effort and strain into finding and developing will demonstrate your confidence as a writer, and everyone will be able to notice your individual assertion in each novel, each sentence, each word.
If you were helped by this article, please share it with other writers you know who may be struggling to find their voice, as well. Also, please share with me your experiences in finding your own writer’s voice.