One of the weirdest things that happened when I first started writing fiction was that I couldn’t stand my voice. Just every word I wrote made me cringe and I couldn’t get what Stephen King said in On Writing out of my head: New writers tend to write like their favorite writers. (Originally posted at http://www.chriskuhnauthor.com – check her out!)
Except I couldn’t tell who I was writing like. I mean, this crap certainly wasn’t even in the ballpark of emulating Stephen or John Irving or any of the other countless authors I admired. Hell, if it had resembled them even a tiny bit, I might be been Ok with it.
And as I worried about it, avoided it, tried to fix it and overthought it (as I usually do), I came to realize that what I was doing was attempting to write “like a fiction writer.” This sucked particularly because it was so intangible… But, thank God, I kept writing the first draft of my novel anyway, just plunging through the brush day after day. And then, as the story approached its end, I wrote even faster and one day I wrote a climatic scene that I realized came out pretty good and the reason was because I was too tired to give a f*ck anymore about how I sounded. I just busted it out, insecure internal opinions be damned and there it was – not looking too bad on paper.
So I think the reason voice gets me so worked up is that it was so key for me as a reader. Like you, I’ve spent my whole life reading and, for me, a writer’s voice could make or break the story. If I couldn’t stand their tone or style, then it was hard getting through the pages. Take Cormac McCarthy. Awesome writer, strangest voice ever. No Country for Old Men is such a singular story but his voice just sounds so hollow to me. Almost chilling where I felt Hal 9000 was narrating instead of a person. And then there’s Life of Pi, a book I wanted to like but couldn’t finish because the first-person narrative was so, well, breathy, that I ended up rooting for the tiger.
And then, there’s my actual professional training, which is in the media world and involves a lot of writing in the journalistic style. And journalism is almost a complete absence of voice. News is composed of facts in a highly structured order with little narrative flair and almost no room for creativity.
So here I am, a writer weirded out by her own voice. But I remembered the clarity brought by writing that successful scene and then I started reading David Foster Wallace. Heard of him? He’s gone from this world now (R.I.P) but before he checked out, he wrote Infinite Jest and that’s important to my tale because his voice is a complete hybridization of literary and conversational style. And that book is like 900 pages of genius but as I read him it hammered home that you can say it any damn way you want as long as it’s good, entertaining or enriching – his was all three.
So I began to realize that maybe voice is just that – our voices, as we sound in real life and embodying our own way of delivering a tale. Maybe it’s just me talking to you – as I am now – and that’s the way I need to tell all my stories. What if I augmented it a bit and said, “Voice is my voice except more of it.” Meaning, that it’s my voice – polished, honed, perfected – but always mine.
I think I could get behind that.