Some Random Thoughts on Voice (Or, Why Writing Programs and Workshops Aren’t Really Worth Your Time)

Last week I shared with you some of my thoughts about the works of John Updike, Richard Yates, and William Gaddis as representative of what I call the ‘Literature of Angst and Malaise.’ This week I want to examine the notion of ‘voice’ in one’s writing, what having a Voice really means, and how it is widely misunderstood.

Voice in writing is the authority of your expression; it is why people will listen to you, and it cannot be taught, you are either born with a voice people will listen to or you are not, it is the same with a singing voice. 

So where does this authority come from?

It comes from the how you perceive the world (which is why it is inextricably linked to vision, which you cannot teach either), and your ability to make people see your vision with clarity, and experience the emotion and passion of that vision.

So the authority that signifies a ‘voice’ also comes from the depth of your own ability to experience deeply profound emotions that will resonate with other people.

People often confuse style with voice, and this is because style is the expression of voice (so again, they are linked). It is because style is the expression of voice that people think you can teach voice. What they are really teaching you are the techniques of different styles.

You can write grammatically and stylistically like Hemingway, but unless your perception of the world and your vision resonate with a Hemingway-like insight into people and experiences and emotions, then your Hemingway-like prose will be lifeless, without authority, without voice.

The one valid criticism of all writing programs and workshops is that they cannot teach voice and they cannot teach vision because these things cannot be taught. You are either born with them or not. So all anyone can teach you is technique.

Hemingway had a voice. So did Fitzgerald, Melville, Poe, Salinger, Faulkner, García Márquez, Kafka, and Borges, to name a few.

In other words, possessing voice and vision are the credentials for being noticed at some point as a great writer. Which is why most writers are mediocre. If you take a look at the current top ten or twenty (or fifty or one hundred) best sellers on the New York Times list, and if you read the first page or two from each book, but you did not look at the title and you did not look at the author, you would be unable to distinguish one from another. They would all sound the same, the same basic grammatical patterns, the same basic vision of the world, nothing actually insightful to say, and no powerful way of saying it.

By the way, if you are good enough, which is to say if you possess voice and vision, then you can do what you want stylistically, you can use fragments, wordplay, run-ons, dialects, dream sequences, anything, because it is your voice which carries the reader through.

Peter Damian Bellis is the author of One Last Dance & Other Stories (1996), which was a 1997 Minnesota Book Award Finalist, and The Conjure Man (2010), which made the informal long list for The National Book Award in 2010. He is also the publisher of River Boat Books.

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