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Finding Your Voice

One of the most prized, and most difficult, tasks a new author undertakes is the quest to find his own voice. It is a desire to be unique and original, to sound like no one else. Because voice has to do with sound, right? Voice is the sound we make out loud. But then, what does voice mean when we're discussing the written word, which is composed and read in silence?

According to the oft-turned-to Oxford English Dictionary, phrase 8b (which is to say, very far down the list of definitions), "to find one's (own) voice" is "to find a means of expressing oneself; to arrive at an authentic mode or style of (artistic) self-expression." I like how "artistic" is thrown in as a parenthetical, like there is some other means of self-expression that might be relevant to the definition. But even "artistic" is too broad. We wouldn't talk of a painter's voice or a potter's voice or even a composer's voice — the musician or singer, yes, but not the composer. So, again, we're back at sound — a musician — and writing, which is not sound at all, merely a representation of sound.

So is that representational element enough to appropriate the word "voice" when discussing writing? Is sound the whole of the metaphor?

In the case of our actual voice, we make audible utterances in order to convey our internal thoughts to other individuals. We do the same when writing. So that brings us a little closer to writing as voice. But more importantly, our voice is thought to be unique — witness voice-recognition security programs — and it's that unique component that we are really talking about when we talk about voice in writing, its "authenticity" as the OED has it, or more accurately its individuality.

But is there such a thing as an authentic, individual voice? Are voices that unique? We have accents based on the way that people in our geographical location speak. Our cadence and rhythm is often learned from our parents. And speaking coaches change an actor or politician's manner of speech to be more in line with an accent or an accepted ideal. In other words, our speaking voice comes out of a vast array of influences.

Ah, influence. Now we are talking about writing again. In his classic treatise The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom maintains that any poet (we can extend that to any writer) begins to write as a result of reading some predecessor's work. Consequently, the new writer apes the mode of his predecessor, which produces weak writing. In order to find an original poetic vision, the new writer must escape his influences. The writer enters into a competition with his predecessor.

It might be important here to note that the OED's first citation for the usage of voice as an authentic artistic expression is from 1892, its next instance not until 50 years later, and its first true use in the modern sense in 1975, shortly after Bloom's book was released. So, whether you grant it a little over 100 years or merely 40, talk of a writer's "voice," and its ascent into the primary position of importance is relatively newtalk of a writer's "voice," and its ascent into the primary position of importance is relatively new. Was that simply because no one had expressed it in those terms, or was having your own voice not that important prior to the 20th century?

In Jonathan Lethem's essay "The Ecstasy of Influence," which is in some ways a response to Bloom's book, he paraphrases a conversation held by the blues impresario Muddy Waters, in which Waters says of one of his songs that he made it up; he was taught the tune by Son House, and the tune had been recorded by others. So in what way was the song unique to Muddy Waters if it had all of these earlier influences? Waters's use of a preexisting tune might be compared to poetic forms, templates of style that each poet tries to make his own. But I think it's also akin to the oral tradition getting written down in centuries past, most notably in the Bible where many authors sought to sound like one another but also in the literary fairy tale, which sets out to have a certain tone whether it is composed by the Grimms, Jacobs, or Calvino. These are all folk arts, taken from the oral voice and committed into the written voice, which, instead of seeking individuality, sought to erase it. In the past, it was more important to sound like the communal voice than to sound like an individual.

Now, this is different than what Lethem is celebrating in his essay. When Lethem talks about influence, he is actually talking about sampling, i.e., appropriation and recombination. He argues that, since the new art might be better than the original art without actually taking anything away from the original art, we should embrace sampling. But agreeing that there are new building blocks with which to build beyond the already-communally-owned letters and words doesn't really address the outright embodiment of a voice. What about appropriating sound?

Which brings me to the pastiche. Let's go to the good old OED once again, definition 2a: "A work, esp. of literature, created in the style of someone or something else." The definition goes on to say that this often includes an element of parody, but it does not need to. Interestingly enough, the word pastiche, like the phrase to find one's voice, also dates to the late 1800s, perhaps another indication that the idea of an author's unique voice is rather recent. So pastiche goes beyond influence because it is conscious and purposely embraced. It goes beyond sampling because it has an intangible attachment to the original. It is impersonation.

My novel, The Twenty-Year Death, is in the form of three separate pastiches, emulating the works of Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson (without parody). These are all authors known for their strong, unique voices, which lend themselves well to imitation.

Reviewers have praised my ability to mimic these authors' styles, saying that I embody their voices. But despite the overwhelmingly positive reviews, almost every reviewer ends with the hope that he or she will soon get to see something in "my own voice."

(Is this essay in my own voice? Or is it in my college-lecture voice? Or my magazine voice? It certainly doesn't sound like my fiction.)

My editor was incensed by this wish to hear "my voice." He felt that the underlying criticism was that I had somehow done something that isn't as significant as "finding my own voice."

I know that the hope to hear "my own voice" is meant as a compliment, that each reviewer enjoyed the book so much that he or she wants to read more from me. But why, then, this particular request if they enjoyed my pastiche so much? Wouldn't they want more pastiches?

A good friend and fellow writer explained that people want to read "my voice" because they never have before and consequently don't have something to compare my pastiches to. This idea carries within it the notion that I might have gotten very different responses if The Twenty-Year Death were my second or third book, after my own voice was well known, and I suspect that is true.

But I don't think that's really the reason for the wish that my next book be in my own voice. I suspect the real reason is this: that everyone else is having the anxiety of influence for me. I so clearly did not worry about it that they must. That is how intensely embedded the idea of one's own voice has become.

But why should I worry? Like Lethem preaches, I tried to make something new and fresh out of my predecessors' work. And the real secret?

I wrote every single word in The Twenty-Year Death. The whole book is in my voice.

÷ ÷ ÷

Ariel S. Winter is the author of The Twenty-Year Death, the children's picture book One of a Kind, and the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie, devoted to the rediscovery of long-forgotten children's books written by literary icons such as John Updike, Langston Hughes, and Gertrude Stein. His writing has appeared in The Urbanite and on McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and in 2008 he won the Free Press "Who Can Save Us Now?" short story contest. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Twenty-Year Death Used Hardcover $9.95
  2. One of a Kind Used Hardcover $10.95
  3. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory... New Trade Paper $19.99

  4. The Ecstasy of Influence:...
    Used Hardcover $10.95
  5. Grimm's Fairy Tales (Puffin Classics) New Trade Paper $4.99

Ariel S. Winter is the author of The Twenty-Year Death

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