Solving the Riddle of Voice

by Brenda Joyce Patterson
published in Writing

We writers are always urged to find our voice in writing. Develop our voice. Be true to our voice. But in the middle of all of that furor over voice, what voice is often gets lost.

As readers, we have favorite authors. We form fierce attachments to their work. Each new novel, collection of short stories or poetry, we snap up and drag off to our reading nooks. Have you ever wondered why we react so strongly? It’s because we’ve discovered that we liked having their voice in our heads. We want to connect with the writer.

In an earlier article, I discuss how writers are mirrors for the reader and the first part of a circuit that readers complete.  As reading writers-in-training, we get the chance to finish the writer/reader circuit. We get to see ourselves – actual and ideal – reflected in the work and find parts of a template to help create our own voice. That process of template-to-creation begins with examining a favorite author’s work.

All Talk and Show

Colson Whitehead and Jane Kenyon are two authors I read specifically to hear their voices.

I love that Colson Whitehead‘s writing is descriptive yet straightforward. His voice always includes a quirky take on his subject matter. I like the idea of his work thrusting me into an alternate world which resembles our here-and-now but is decidedly not.

Excerpt from “The Intuitionist”:

Big Billy Porter is one of the Old Dogs, and proud of it. On many occasions, Lila Mae has returned to the Pit from an errand only to hear Big Billy Porter regaling the boys about the glory days of the Guild, before. While his comments are never specific, it is clear to everyone just what and who Big Billy is referring to in his croaking, muddy voice. Rebellious among the bureaucratic rows of the Pit, Big Billy’s oak desk juts out into the aisle so he can seat his bulk directly beneath one of the ceiling fans. He says he overheats easily and on the hottest days of the summer his remaining hair slides away from how he’s combed it, the strands easing into nautilus whorls.

Excerpt from “Apex Hides the Hurt”:

Roger Tripple did not have a weak chin so much as a very aggressive neck. When he answered Roger’s phone call, it was the first thing he remembered. He had always imagined it as a simple allocation problem from back in the womb. After the wide plain of Roger’s forehead and his portobello nose, there wasn’t much left for the lower half of his face. Even Roger’s lips were deprived; they were thin little worms that wiggled around the hole of his mouth.

As a poet, I find Jane Kenyon‘s poems especially meaningful. I seek out her work when I need to quiet my inner fretting. Her voice is elegiac, plain-spoken yet hopeful.

Excerpt from “Let Evening Come”:

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

Excerpt from “Happiness”

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

That’s the What, Where’s the How?

Voice is an accumulation, a distillation of you the writer.  Your topics, word choice, word order, sentence structure and rhythm. All of it goes into making your voice.

I know I’ve finally developed voice in my own writing, but I’m not quite sure how. Maybe it was reading book after book after book of others’ writing. And learning about myself in the process — what I like, what I think worked (and didn’t) in those short stories, novels, and nonfiction works. Maybe it was logging enough hours writing. And trusting I have something to say without pretending to be someone else.

Or maybe it’s my preferences and tendencies coming to light. When offered a selection of poems, stories or novels to read, I prefer beautiful language – no matter the genre or style. When I write fiction and nonfiction, I tend to write accessibly with carefully chosen descriptive words. A definite rollover, I know, from my years of wrangling words into poems.

Actually, it was all of that and more. Voice is not simply a single layer in the writing. It begins with the writer, but it finds its full expression as she/he chooses a genre or subject and creates characters. This is where alchemy and the work of writing lies.

In my next two articles, we’ll examine voice in genre/subject and in character creation.

Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.

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