Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Whose voice is it, anyway?

In taking my writing courses and in my writing practice, the question of voice seems to recur, over and over and over again.

There's the traditional idea of voice in literature, regardless of in what genre it belongs. Who's the narrator, do they tell you the story in first, second, or third person? Are they a character in the story, or one outside of it, telling you what's happening?

In a travel writing course I just took (an excellent one, by the way), the use of voice kept coming up - other people's voices, the voices of the people you meet, the characters inhabiting your tales and the places you journey to, making them real and interesting for your readers. Readers want to hear their voices, know the people you come across, care about them, learn their stories, and you, the writer, are only the conduit. Your own voice is only important in as far as you, the author, represent them, the readers.

In writing nonfiction we all find different voices and, because some of it is autobiography of a sort, the voice we choose to use is often our own. Funny how we have to struggle to understand what our own voices should sound like, instead of just having them flow organically out. It's as if we're strangers to ourselves, just learning how to talk. But then, talking to ourselves is not the point, is it? So we must define and hone our voices to ones that others can hear, are willing to listen to, want to listen to, even. And for so many of us writers, as perhaps is also the case with nonwriters, we are constantly discovering new facets to our own voices, experimenting, trying things on for size, discarding what doesn't serve us, doesn't fit our narrative or our own self-image.

For some of us, having so long suppressed our natural voices,trying to silence them or make them like everyone else's, we aren't even sure what we really sound like anymore. It becomes a process of discovering ourselves and our own voice. So now, just as I am learning to hear my own voice, I'm also learning that it's the voice of others I need to write. And my own voice once again becomes a background whisper, informing the 'othervoice' of my writing.

For such a long time though (an eternity it seems), my voice was silent - through the nonwriting years, those times when physical activity became my means of expression. When 'sweating it out', pushing myself until I could barely breathe, let alone speak, was the point. My body did the talking then. So now, when I write, my own voice refuses to be silenced; to take a back seat to the voices of my characters, even if they are real people in real places, with so much more to say than I could ever hope for.

It becomes louder, more insistent, the more I try to downplay it, like a child shushed too often, rebelling. But, like a child, when given free rein, it says things I can never have imagined - embarrassing, if honest, things. No one wants to talk about that, I tell it. "BUT I DO," it insists and there is no way to quiet it without making a scene. Perhaps that's the gift of being a writer, as well as the curse. That your voice, once acknowledged and encouraged, is unable to be silenced.

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