Everyone knows the term voice as it refers to a piece of writing. Defining what voice means in our own work, though, is an amorphous task, more difficult than our instinctive knowing.
If you’re a writer and you find yourself thinking about voice, about trying to achieve such a thing in your work, you are on the wrong track. You can’t get there by thinking about it.
Voice is, in its most fundamental aspect, you. It is that deep part of yourself that lands on the page quite without your consent. If you are fundamentally kind in your approach to the world, kindness will show in your themes, in your language, even in your basic rhythms. If you are a know-it-all, your writing will have an abrasive authority. If you are sad, discouraged, pessimistic, that will show, too. A believer of any stripe? Your passion will inform your style.
If you are writing fiction, your perceiving characters, especially a first-person narrator, will change the tone of your voice. But unless you are an absolute master of literary deception, no character you make up will erase your fingerprint. If you a looking for work that will keep your true identity hidden, try almost any other career. Putting words on a page, day after day after day, is like living in a mirror. If you are writing true, you will reflect back who you are.
I find it off-putting to have strangers respond to me with particular deference because I am “an author.” That I have been published means little except that I’m capable of hard work and persistence. But when I meet someone who has read and loved one or more of my books, I am moved. If you know something I have written, then you know something of me. You have my voice in your head, in your heart. And that honors me.
When I was Faculty Chair of the early MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Kathi Appelt, another faculty member named me “Mama Bear.” It was a name that seemed to cling, and I rather enjoyed it, because it named something real in my soul. Not that I am—or was, when my children were young—always an exemplary mother, but that I always wanted to be that mother and because my virtues, such as they are, tend to be motherly ones.
That mother piece comes through, not just in my teaching but in my writing, too. It comes through when I’m writing about mothers, of course, but more subtly it comes through in the world I create and the language I use to create it. But I never think “motherly” when I write. I just inhabit my words with a mother’s compassion, a mother’s slightly larger-than-life perspective, a mother’s humbling lack of worldly power. And if my story speaks to my readers, it is because in considerable part they respond to that mother’s voice.
No mother is only a mother, though. I bring other dimensions of my self to my writing, some of them attributes I may not recognize. How often I have learned who I am through the eyes of a perceptive reader who sees more clearly, more objectively than I! All of those aspects that make up Marion become part of the world view that shapes my stories, of the language I choose, of the rhythm it finds on the page. I have no doubt that who I am even impacts my punctuation. (I love ellipses. Don’t ask me why. Maybe one of my readers will explain it to me one day.)
All of this happens unconsciously, but no one starts out writing with voice already established. It’s something we grow into, something the language we discover, the stories that discover us must find along the way. And a great part of the joy of sitting down to write, day after day after day, is watching that core of who we are find its way to the page.
So forget about voice. Thinking about it won’t help anyway. But enjoy creating something that perfectly—and almost invisibly—mirrors your soul. Then take your courage in hand and send that unbidden voice into the world.