Enchantment happens when you don’t sacrifice your own voice to the god of marketability.
All writers crave an audience, but it’s by writing from your own passion, and expressing yourself skillfully using your voice that you will produce valuable writing: writing that has the power to enchant in its unique way. Worthy readers will find your writing.
Beginning writers may struggle to find their own voice, or doubt that it is “good” enough. What do I mean by the “writer’s voice”?
I understood this question much better (and got a great answer) when I read a post by author Meg Wolitzer on the website Everyday Ebook (October 5, 2014). Wolitzer recently published a novel for young adults called Belzhar (so titled because Wolitzer was greatly influenced by Sylvia Plath’s iconic The Bell Jar). Much of her post was about how Plath’s writing affected her, but the part that helped me was her explanation of where a writer’s voice comes from.
Sometimes when people are writing, they look far, far outside themselves. They look for something that might sound like a writer’s voice on the page and they forget that they have so much inside them that is a voice that they’ve been developing. That’s not to say that books are from the perspective of the writer, but they are from the sensibility of the writer, which is different. You can find a wonderful idea outside of yourself to write a book about, but you need to know the connection between you and that idea. And that connection is often in your sensibility and will come out in your voice.
For me, the key words in the paragraph quoted above are sensibility and connection. The writer’s voice is not simply the writer’s perspective or the language used by the writer. A writer’s sensibility encompasses so many things: personal experiences, emotions, analytical thoughts, ideas from books and other sources—and how the writer processes, or makes connections, between all these disparate influences.
Scottish writer Alan Warner, speaking with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC’s Writers & Company on November 23, 2014 (listen to podcast here), also talked about the writer’s voice. As a young writer, Warner was inspired by literature and longed to express himself creatively, but doubted his ability. Then he read a book that made a huge impression on him. It was The Busconductor Heinz, by James Kelman. The setting of the book is Glasgow, a gritty, working-class city that Warner knew well. From this place Kelman wrote a book that Warner describes as “philosophic, scabrous, ironic, funny, and at times erotic.”
What Warner learned from reading The Busconductor Heinz, he told Wachtel, is that “it’s possible to express profound things from the context of your own culture.” The book made him realize that you didn’t have to be a Waugh or a Hemingway, living in a huge metropolis or a glamorous place, to be able to have significant insights about life and people.
I haven’t read The Busconductor Hines myself, but after listening to Warner on Writers & Company I looked up some reviews of it. There was a wide range of opinion. Some people loved it, others didn’t. Many readers were offended by the many repetitions of the crudest swear words, but others loved the authenticity of the “voice.” Writers can’t please everyone.
Another thought I had about “voice” is that it comes partly from our inner lives—our imagination, our dreams, our subconscious—and those things are boundless. That is why one doesn’t have to have lived in an exotic or sophisticated place in order to write profound things. What Wolitzer calls the “sensibility” that we give to our writing is our inner synthesis of everything we’ve lived, observed, felt, and read—put into a context, a topic, and/or characters that we care about deeply.
The Vancouver Writers Fest
Better Living Through Books?
One of the events I went to at the Writers Fest this year was a panel discussion called “Better Living Through Books?” The three panelists (writers Rebecca Mead, Nadia Bozak and Damon Galgut), with moderator (and writer) Angie Abdou, were grappling with questions related to what I’ve written about the writer’s voice. How do writers choose what to write about? What makes their writing good? Do they think about their audiences while they’re writing?
All of these authors reinforced the idea that the best writing comes not when a writer is trying to please a certain audience, or accomplish a specific educational or political goal in a didactic way. The best writing happens when someone writes about what matters to them personally—and is not afraid to bring their own emotions and experiences into the writing. I’ve always called this “writing from the heart,” and recognize it in my own best writing.
The panelists of “Better Living Through Books?” all agreed that they were motivated to write the books they did because of their own passion for the subjects or books that moved them, their need to delve as deeply as possible into their material.
These three panellists had been brought together for this event because all of them had been heavily influenced and inspired by other writers. Rebecca’s Mead’s lifelong “relationship” (some would say obsession) with George Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch, led her to write My Life in Middlemarch, published in 2014. This book is a gem that combines memoir, literary criticism, and biography. It inspired me not only to reread George Eliot’s classic 19th-century novel, but to write a rave review of Mead’s work on this blog.
I was completely unfamiliar with the work of British writer Nadia Bozak or South African Damon Galgut. Part of the fun and intellectual excitement of the Vancouver Writers Fest comes from being exposed to books and writers that one doesn’t know.
I wasn’t initially impressed by Bozak as a speaker, but when it came time for her to read from her own book, El Niño, I was captivated. Her voice was spellbinding, and after listening to her narrative for a few minutes, I felt compelled to learn more about her characters and their fates. Bozak has always been haunted by the works of Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Conrad, and J.M. Cootzee, and she has found her own stories and her own voice in extrapolating from their themes.
Damon Galgut read from his book Arctic Summer, a novel in which he imagines E.M. Forster’s intimate life and inner thoughts during the long period he was writing A Passage to India. Galgut has been driven by his admiration for Forster. He explained that there have been numerous books written about E.M. Forster; we know a lot about his books and the facts of his life, but Galgut was curious about the psychology of this man who was a repressed homosexual, tormented by an unrequited love, yet able to channel his passion into enduring works of art. Since there were no facts about Forster’s inner life, Galgut chose to create a plausible Forster in the form of a novel. Like Bozak, Galgut possesses the gift of making us care deeply about his characters.
Writers’ voices on Writers & Company
I continue to feel delight and inspiration by listening to writers’ voices, literally, on CBC’s Writers & Company with Eleanor Wachtel. Yesterday Wachtel was remembering the great British mystery novelist P.D. James, who died last week at the age of 94. She replayed a stage interview and reading she had done on stage with James at the 1999 Humber School for Writers Distinguished Speaker Series.
James spoke during that interview about her intense psychological need to be a writer. She said, “I would not have lived a happy and fulfilled life if I had not written.” She expanded her explanation of what drives writers with a quote from a psychiatrist:
Creativity is the successful resolution of internal conflict.
What came through in James’s real voice was her sharp intelligence, her wit, her stoicism in the face of hardship, and the discipline she imposed upon herself to write well within a genre that had traditionally been considered below the level of literary novels. Indeed, she succeeded in changing her chosen genre, and her pride and joy in being able to achieve this came through in her voice during the interview.
I remember another Writers & Company interview that made a big impression on me a couple of months ago. Scottish writer Ali Smith’s voice was enchanting, not only because of her accent but because of the childlike, breathless joy that infused everything she said. She was talking about art, and how it is like a bridge between Earth and Heaven and between people. Much of what she said was mystical; I couldn’t quite understand some of it; it was a glimpse into an enchanted world.
It wasn’t important that I didn’t understand everything she said. What I caught was her excitement and gratefulness for the life she has had. She was very poor when she started as a writer but she said it didn’t matter. She is happy. She is doing what her talent has led her to do.