The Inconvenient Truth about Voice

(with thanks to @cinemamanche for his lovely description of voice as the aroma of a text)

Voice is one of the great mysteries of writing, and the bearer of a couple of inconvenient truths for any author. It’s the one thing you can’t do without; but no one will tell you how to get better at it.

So what is voice?

Put it like this. What do Stanley Kubrick, Radiohead, DBC Pierre, Frank Gehry, Bob Dylan, Elfriede Jelinek, Morissey, Anish Kapoor, and the Coen Brothers have in common? Apart from that night ten years ago, outside the Brixton Academy, when… The answer is obvious – and it should end the topic right there. But somehow it never does. What I want to do with this article is figure out why an article like this needs to be so long.

The answer , in case it’s not self-evident (or in case there really was a night 10 years ago…), is that most people with a basic knowledge of the field in question – be it film, music, literature, architecture or art – if shown a piece of hitherto unseen work by one of them, would instantly be able to tell you who’d made it. And that, in fewer than 200 words, is all there really is to say about “voice”.

And yet we keep talking about it. Everywhere writers meet there is almost as much hot air and verbiage about voice as there is jealous bile about the latest vampire hit. Why? Simple, really. Editors, agents, publishers. They all agree on this one (and possibly only) point – voice is the essential ingredient a writer must possess. The “experts” also seem to agree on one other point – that of the key elements of writing – including characterisation, pacing, plotting – the one that can’t be taught is voice.

I want to look briefly at why It is that these two things make voice so controversial, and then ask the questions – is voice really essential? Where does it come from? What do we mean by saying it can’t be taught?

It’s obvious why saying voice is the one essential quality for a writer should make it controversial, especially when “experts” seem to go out of their way to be obfuscatory about what they mean by it. It’s true that in much genre fiction voice is slightly different, because there are genre norms, and what is valued most is often that elusive quality of “transparency” – an author who doesn’t intrude on their world. But I don’t want to get too het up on that distinction because if one does it can become an excuse for “literary” authors like us here to start sticking their nose into their text and, unless you’re making a point of that a la Kundera, it’s no more acceptable here than in genre fiction. A novel should (Ooh, I used the “s” would – spank me), even if it’s cross-referential, be a self-contained world in which the reader can lose themselves.

“Voice can’t be taught.” Publishers, agents, and editors seem, in my experience, to say this in the sense of “if someone comes to us and they can’t plot very well we can, and will, work with them on it. But if they have no voice, there’s nowt we can do.” There’s a very obvious reason why this is controversial, and it has to do, I’m afraid, with political correctness. I had a girlfriend once who took (more than) umbrage at my supervisor’s assertion that first class academic work could not be quantified but was evident when he was faced with it. Her complaint, that it wasn’t fair because it gave people nothing to aim for, that it discriminated against the hard-working and perpetuated an elite, was understandable. The need for fairness is one of our deepest yearnings.

But in this case, I’m afraid the complaint is utterly irrelevant. Artistic merit is nothing about rewarding hard work. It’s about, well, artistic merit. And that, I’m afraid, is unquantifiable but evident when you’re confronted with it. Which means that the thousands of writers who “write beautifully”(how often on sites like Authonomy do we hear reviewers say “this is beautifully written it should be published”?) are naturally going to feel aggrieved, but their beautiful writing is, frankly, very little to do with the artistic value of their book. If it was, the Tate would be full of Royal Doulton special edition plates.

So that’s why voice is controversial. But hang on. There’s a deeper question. Are people right that it matters at all? Well, it sounds like a dogma, and dogmas are things we at Year Zero dislike, er, dogmatically. And to an extent it IS nonsense. The value of much art lies in what it does for the people and communities that produce it – it gives hope, aspiration, self-esteem, vision – a sense of future, and to be honest, no aesthetic bollocks I spout in the next 500 words is going to trump that. As a punk ideologist and humanist, voice means precisely bugger all in art.

Except. Well, except look at those things – self-esteem, hope, vision. What do they mean? How are they real to an individual unless those hopes are specific? Unless the art produced has meaning to the community/individual? And a lot of that is about distinctive voice. So there IS, kind of, a crossover with “art for art’s sake”. And so there ought to be, because we’re not JUST absinthe drinking dilettantes.

Nonetheless, I’m part of Year Zero because I DO care about the arty nonsense. I want my writing to be the best it can. I want to push boundaries, connect with readers in unique ways, produce a body of work that (a subject for another blog) “matters”. And that means I need voice.

Which brings me to how to develop voice if it really is unteachable, and how to know if I have it because, if I don’t, I might as well leave the Zeroes now.

I want to start with Malcolm Gladwell’s oft-cited rule of 10,000 hours. His work on this is really at the heart of all the “learn the rules to break them” vs natural genius debates. He showed that most of the people we think of as geniuses – in the arts and in sport – actually did nothing of any real brilliance or originality until they’d put in 10,000 hours of practice.

What does this mean? Well, it means the “I don’t need rules, I’m a genius” brigade really are, as we thought all along, just lazy and will probably never produce anything any good. It also means something very useful. It means, if I understand correctly, that a natural aptitude for following the rules well is a good indicator that you may at a future stage develop an original voice. So that “beautifully-written” prose isn’t valueless. But it’s an indicator of what might be to come and not of the work in which it is displayed.

So what, practically, does that mean? Well, it means it’s a great thing to experiment. Which we kind of knew already. Why does it mean that? Well, first because it will accelerate the progress through your apprenticeship (question: why, when we hire a plumber, or go to a doctor, do we consider it essential they have served a full apprenticeship but as writers we expect to have a hit with our first novel?). If you spend them all on just one area of writing, it’s unlikely you’ll emerge fully formed. It’s also important that you find what suits you, pick up new tricks, borrow from here, pastiche from there until slowly something begins to emerge that’s you.

So it turns out there are not two but three inconvenient truths about voice. It IS essential. And it IS something that’s unquantifiable and unteachable in itself. he good news is that one can work on it, practising the basics until one’s voice emerges. The third inconvenient truth is that the practice will take a lot of time and angst and sweat and pain. Just like anything else worth doing.

Do discuss at will and leisure – I’d also like to hear your examples of great, original voices – in any form of the arts.

~ by yearzerowriters on December 5, 2009.

63 Responses to “The Inconvenient Truth about Voice”

  1. Good topic for debate, Dan!

    I find I agree with all your conclusions, but not all the arguments along the way. I suspect your girlfriend was right when she challenged her examiners over the criteria for excellence. In the past, the inability of examiners to defend their marking (“It’s a distinction because I say it is”) often revealed a slap-dash approach to their work (“Sixty dissertations marked in fifty minutes, then down the pub”). Nowadays, decisions often have to be defended in exam boards with reference to agreed criteria, making it harder to assign a mark without actually reading the paper.

    It’s the same with voice. By treating it as an indefinable, outer sign of an inner grace, critics and publishers avoid any discussion about their judgements. It’s a classic example of obfuscation, intentionally making a term ambiguous. But you defined it satisfactorily for me, when you pointed to distinctive style. It’s the same in fine art, where having a distinctive style and being identifiable makes it more likely that a painter will have market value? And while it’s not possible to teach a painter to have a style, it is possible to facilitate their learning, something that great teachers like Hans Hoffman were able to do.

    Looking to artists or musicians, practice and experiment are essential to mastery, but so is getting informed criticism from our peers? Feedback enables us to learn from our mistakes.

    • Larry, you’re right of course about the practice of many examiners – I better be careful what I say on that given I work at a university. My supervisor actually put it very well when pushed – he said “in a first class dissertation the author is in control of the material; in a second class distinction the material is in control of the author”.

      On ething I would have talked about – to pick you fine art point up – if I’d had time is the artistic distinction between a “master” and their “school”.

      Yes, we need to look to the “great2, to our peers, and to ourselves – to have those three points of reference anchoring our work
      Dan

  2. I suppose I have a distinctive style, or an approach as I would prefer to call it. I deny that this is my ‘voice’. My main characters, almost exclusively monologuing/stream of consciousnessing – they have a voice, one much more significant than my own; to wit, the one that must commune with the reader and inveigle their way inside the reader’s head. Yes I am the consistent factor behind each, and each is drawn from within part of my psyche and always with reference back to me as part of the writing process, but any one is not MY ‘voice’ – it is an aspect of mine, a dialect, a biopsied slice. Those that know me, would never equate some of my characters’ voices with my voice.

    My voice would have no public existence at all, were it not for this relatively new imperative to publicise oneself and build a platform. That is my public voice. Sometimes I even ventriloquise it in the guise of one of my fictional characters. I wish writers could maintain their gravitas and proclaim from afar through their writing alone, but those days have long gone.

    Voice is central to everything I write. But it is the character’s voice that matters, not mine. Structuralist critics (were I ever to be fortunate enough to merit any) might well peel back everything about my characters to tie in with the real me and my formative social and cultural influences. They would probably point to the same manias and obsessions running between each book; root and branch assault on language, political agenda to see power relations behind everything – these are motivating factors, but do not correlate directly to my voice, because the artistic process I bring to it distorts, mutates, refracts and maybe even transmogrifies these intentions by giving themselves over to artistic expression. I do not conduct my life as a metaphor, yet within literature I live exclusive within its realm.

    I’ve been writing and sputtering for 25 years now so I do agree about honing ones craft. But I started out as a playwright for 15 of those years and that taught me a goodly amount about voice. And it wasn’t my voice being schizophrenic up there on stage when 2 characters held a conversation, it was an artistic/fictional representation of theirs. 3-d charcaters, enfleshed by the skill of living, breathing actors. I had an unborn fetus addicted in embryo conversing with her mother – the metaphor was supplied by my twisted voice, however their stage conversations were solely theirs (and what the actresses and director also brought to their roles).

    Voice is a living, breathing entity for the duration of the novel. Don’t pickle it in formaldehyde by declaring oh yes that’s a quintissential Nash, a paradigmatic Holloway etc.

    marc

    • “Voice is a living, breathing entity for the duration of the novel” – I can’t quite make up my mind on this. I agree absolutely that art is about the fluid, the indefinable, the constantly evolving. On the other hand, with any of our writers, not only could I tell whose a new piece is on this site, I think I’d be able to pick them out of a crowd.

      I think I actually tried to make a point that voice is NOT about intruding on the text (that’s an excuse by writers of bad literary fiction) – in fact I believe I said the opposite – that the good author leaves a world that is utterly self-contained (intercultural cross-referencinga side). Yetc it is still distinctively theirs. I am beginning to sound like those medieval believers in “substance” – but I do think it’s a kind of definitely structured but invisible underlying matrix. OK, now I sound like Chomsky.

      For interest:
      Daisy – blank
      Oli – resless and poetic
      Marc – strangles the last drop of life out of words
      Larry – elegiac
      Jenn – SFW
      Heikki – a ride with the roof down on the first day of autumn
      Marcella – a lecture over a pint that’s probably spiked
      Penny – languid and lascivious
      Sarah – distilled steampunk

      • Jenn = SFW – Safe for work? Shoppers Food Warehouse?

        I know you did this tongue in cheek, but it is exactly the reductiveness I spoke of – Sarah’s latest post is hardly steampunk? How would you sum yourself up by the way?

        1) Voice – narrator’s voice in any one work – individual germane to the novel
        2) Author’s public persona – marketing tool, but presumably fairly constant
        3) Author’s (stylistic) voice – this is the one I object to most strongly

        You’ve thrown down a gauntlet now. Each of us might have to post our next samples anonymously and do our best to trip you up as to who the author is!

        marc

  3. yes, this is entirely tongue in cheek, but I think you get the point – the voices here are utterly distinct – one point of the article is that one couldn’t quantify so of course these are crass approximations.

    By distiled steampunk what I mean is a cutting edge modern sensibility wearing a period gown. and I think that is absolutely what her breathtaking new piece is. It’s like someone from, well, Fresno, went back and rewrote Christina Rosetti

    • Rosetti the steampunk pin up girl? See this is my problem with categorising anything like voice or genre. Too often it’s lazy and diminishes the work. Why is there even a genre called steampunk? Cos books loosely related by theme and setting sell, so they’re bracketed together as a marketing ploy. Is my voice a marketing ploy? Only I hope a distant, trailing second to the voice in the book it is trying to help sell. I think you were the one who mentioned being wrung out by writing “Skin Book”. That is a voice quarried deep, bloody and raw from parts of you, you may initially only have been in distant contact with. Part of you certainly, but no more you than Aggy or Sandrine. Is the voice of SB the same voice as SFtOSotW? Yet they have the same writing midwife at the birth…

      marc

      • I honestly can’t comment, Marc. There’s a parallel debate sprung from this post (with its own voice :p) at Authonomy, and over theer Emma (Ilyria Moon) made the great point that a writer has no idea of their own voice – only readers do. I think she’s right. I have no idea of my own voice, or even if I have one. If you’re talking different genres, though, I know that any Kubrick film is clearly Kubrick. Or Scorsese. Or the Coen Brothers – and they work in pretty distinct genres.

        I DO think categories are unhelpful, yes. But i still want to be a better writer – and I know that involves a voice I have no ability to gauge. All I can come up with is to try everything and when I work, try to do so in such a way that I’m always learning, and at least aware of my mistakes.

  4. Marc, I reckon if we posted stories we already wrote here anonymously, that I would actually be able to correctly match the author to the story. The only way you could “fool” me is if you wrote something that sets out to take off someone else’s voice.

  5. I see voice as a binary concept. It’s the combination of practice, experience and experimentation that enables you to communicate your ideas, via your chosen medium, with fluidity and conviction, but it’s also how those ideas sound/read/taste once they’re released to the audience. I think most writers begin writing and read just like their influences – the authors who inspired them to write in the first place. There’s no conviction in writing that way, as you’re essentially faking it. Only once you’ve mixed up your influences and practised writing out of your comfort zone will you find the way to write that allows you to channel your soul onto the page. That’s when you find your voice. After that, your voice is just how you write; whether people like your voice and find it palatable is beyond your control.

    I also think that “voice” as a marketing tool is just pretension. “Distinctive and new” can also mean “barely comprehensible”.

    • I agree about the blending. I’m interested that you see it happening almost consciously from teh writer’s side as wella s the reader’s side. I never experience that as a writer. I have astory to tell. I guess the voice is how I tell it, and how it arrives at the reader – but whilst I am conscious of the technique of that, I see it so tied up with the reader (it’s subjective sound whereas I am simply producing air vibrations as it were) I find it impossible to gague. When I write and get embroiled in my subject matter, it is very much the story and character I am getting wrapped up in, not the voice – I guess because I’m already representing the story & character to myself in my head (that is MY voice hearing) so I can only read the text in lighjt of that. The reader had only one text so finds the voice of the text easier to discern.

      “I also think that “voice” as a marketing tool is just pretension. “Distinctive and new” can also mean “barely comprehensible”.” Absolutely – DBC Pierre

  6. I agree with Marcella — I think if we all posted anonymously, I’d be able to tell who wrote what.

    Examples of voice: the Big B Boys — Burroughs and Bukowski.

    And my Daddies: Henry Miller and Cormac McCarthy.

    Without quite knowing how to put the definition with anything resembling eloquence, I can say that voice is the absolute reason for whether or not I fall in love with a writer.

    Interesting, that.

    • Interesting, as I want my reader to be seduced by my character, not me…

      marc

      • It never works that way for me as a reader. When I fell in love with Kerouac in Big Sur,I fell in love with him in every single book. And it has been that way with all of the others.

    • I’m with Daisy. I don’t tend to make a conscious decision to love all an author’s works, although I seek them out, and when I do, I tend to find myself experiencing the same reaction. Of course I fall in love with charcaters – Miu in Sputnik Sweetheart, Anna inDamage. But mainly I fall in love with books – and that’s because of voice
      Dan

  7. ALSO!

    Let me defend Pierre — after I read Vernon, I was going to camp outside his house until he had tea with me.

  8. I loved it VGL as well, even though that’s quite an unfashionable stance to take for whatever reason.

  9. The debate over “voice” bears out the point that it is an ambiguous, and therefore unhelpful, term, which obscures rather than clarifies debate, because it lends itself to questions about the author’s versus the character’s voice etc. But if we are talking about writers having a distinctive style, in the way that painters have a recognisable style, it seems more straightforward to me.

  10. Marc: Yes!

    Marcella: I know, but I wonder why? You’re the only other person I know who doesn’t bash that book.

    Larry: I think the question of the author’s versus the character’s voice is a fascinating one. I mean, if we look at Suttree Vs. Blood Meridian — the kid and Suttree couldn’t be more different, but Cormac comes through both of them to the extent that I feel comfortable with both, because I feel I’m in familiar hands.

    My writing? Every MC I’ve ever written is me.

    • I did quite like the book. Didn’t read the next one though. It certainly was a quirky voice. As was “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime” and yet the follow up novel was not immediately obviously written by the same author?

      I think I need to try and better wrangle my thinking on this issue.

      I grant plenty of artists have trademark styles instantly recognisable. I don’t acquaint this with just their voice. I think the main difference between Dan’s position and mine stems from the different primacies of ‘story’ we each have. For Dan it is primary, he is a story teller – I may involve stories in my writing, but it is not the endpoint for me. I am more interested in the narrator’s voice, through which the cracked emotion leaks out. When Dan says “When I write and get embroiled in my subject matter, it is very much the story and character I am getting wrapped up in, not the voice” he emphasises character, whereas I would pursue voice. These are just different approaches.

      marc

      • I actually see the point I was making as an almost perceptual impossibility of my experiencing what my reader experiences – I CANNOT experience my text separarte of my representation of it to myself. They will always be in dialogue. The reader ONLY has my text. so, for me, having defined (possibly incorrcetly) voice as the meniscus that coats my reader from my text, I think it makes no sense to think of trying to experience my own voice – all I have are character and story.
        Dan

  11. I like Marcella’s suggestion. Maybe we should all post stories here anon, to prove the point of voice. I personally think that ‘voice’ will change with each story depending on the characters. Therefore, it’s not that easy to ‘guess’ which author is writing what.

    For me, I don’t think that voice can necessarily be taught. It comes from practice (and pain) like Dan said. I don’t think we can sit in a classroom and learn how to express voice. It’s something natural. This is the very reason I think it will can can change, therefore impossible to ‘guess’ who’s writing what.

    Anne L-G

    • You are a perfect example of how voice is absolutely different froma person. You are one of the loveliest people I know, but the voice of your prose chils me to the bone within a few sentences – that would be your voice – the sucking of heat from the page.
      Dan

  12. Daisy, I hear DBC P lives in Leitrim, not far from the seat of one of my idols, McGahern. If you ever want to make a trip to Ireland, we can sit outside his house and demand tea together. It’s always less crazy when there is more than one person involved. I think it’s called the diffusion of crazy effect.

  13. Anne, no offense, but I reckon I would guess who wrote what. Unless people purposely changed their voices in an effort to confuse me. Most of the time when I read this blog, I read the title and opening paragraph first and hear the “voice” I’ve assigned to each author in my head (accent and all) before I even check the byline.

  14. For “Heikki – a ride with the roof down on the first day of autumn” the author deserves my gratitude and made my day, week & decade – that is exactly what I want to be.

    Having said that, I must also commend Dan for managing to bring new openings with every post. That voice can’t be taught must be a truth in the Newtonian world, but will it hold in the quantum world?

    • Quantum – is it voice or is it language? Good question. Not sure which one is photon and which one is wave, an argument could be made for either.

      marc

      • That indeed is the question. Sometimes I hear the voice in the choice of words(newtonian) and then there’s people who write between the lines actually (yourself – quantum). I am full of admiration for the Copenhagen Interpretation people, because I cannot do that.

    • This is a great twist on the debate, and is possibly what I wanted to say about how reader and author have separate experiences – teh dual aspect of the text. Thank you, Heikki.
      Dan

  15. Please believe me when I say I’m not doing this to be tit-for-tat provocative, but as much as we can ask what is ‘voice’, I’d be interested to pose a question for a future post, as to what do we mean by ‘story’? which we broached on free-e-day webchat, but maybe could go into deeper later.

    marc

    • Marc, i was going to ask if you would post the piece you wrote for the webchat – it was hugely thought-provoking (and I was delightfully gobsmacked by the wonderful reaction it got – it’s so great people care about these things as much as we do) – perhaps next Saturday?
      Dan

  16. Sorry I’m late. 2 birthday parties today. And I’m 7 hours behind you guys!

    Brilliant discussion and I’m floored with the complexity.

    Writing style and the voice of the character(s) are distinctly different facets to the process of writing. I just wrote a novel, Getting the Old Gang Back Together, with 6 different first-person narrative perspectives, plus a 3rd person narration for one character. They’re all from the same Brooklyn neighborhood. Oli read some of it and thinks I didn’t do a good enough job of making distinctions between the characters. Hence, my craft in that area needs some work, evidently. That is an example of my lack of experience writing long fiction. (Or I just suck at it.)

    And to Marc’s point in writing plays, understanding your character before you put pen to paper is inimitably your own process as a writer. Just like how a story finds its own path despite your initial plan before writing it.

    If we were to indulge in the experiment, I have no doubt we’d figure out who’s who in a hot minute–not necessarily because of voice, but because of the context, content of what we write, rhythm, and other details (like Marc’s use of words I’ve never heard in my life, even in tweets).

    I just broke all the rules of writing good fiction in a story I posted a few minutes ago. The show-but-don’t-tell rule. All I did was tell. I did it purposefully–you’ll read it and decide if it sucked. But, Dan, when you talk about critiques that convey the text was beautifully written *but* the voice just wasn’t there, then it just wasn’t beautifully written.

    When I used to be a chef, we’d try out hundreds of experiments. One day my pastry guy did a ricotta torta. It was a play off a torta della nonna, but with no pignoli nuts and he strained the ricotta for days. It was delicious. But no one could possibly eat a whole portion. Too rich wasn’t the description–it was totally over the top condensed. I said there’s no way we can put it on the menu. Everyone was like “dude, it’s delicious.” I said that if we couldn’t finish a portion, then it wasn’t worth the plate it was on. See what I mean? If the whole thing isn’t digestible as a whole, then you can’t say it’s beautiful or perfect or publishable or whatever because, well, it doesn’t have that staying power.

    ok I’m done. Thanks for a great post, Dan, and to everyone’s brilliant insights. I learn a lot from you.

    ~jenn

    • That’s a great point about the need to be “digestible as a whole”.

      It’s the same when you’re painting in oils, and you scrub a wonderfully painted section for the sake of the whole?

  17. Example of the most powerful voice ever — DH Lawrence. He started out emulating Hardy and then broke all the rules with Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It is beyond a masterpiece. And there’s so much of himself in it — more so, I think, than in Sons and Lovers; that piece may have his life, but LCL has his natural heart.

    Oh, and Bukowski is off the hook. I haven’t read enough of him, but it’s always a pleasure.

    As for myself, I don’t think about voice (or anything like that) anymore. If I find myself having a voice, I do everything I can to break it — I will refuse to be pinned down or predictable. Everything I do is ars gratia artis; thinking about what you’re doing unravels, and guiding it, making a voice or sticking with a structure ends up creating making pale, contrived pieces that are more concerned with the mechanics than the heart. I refuse to follow any sort of rules at all. I know a lot of people say that, but I do everything I can to practice it.

    I can’t identify steampunk with a writing voice — it’s a goth-related fashion. But modern sensibility in a period gown? Maybe. I kind of get that. But I don’t want anyone to be able to sum up my work in any number of words.

    -Sarah

    • Sarah I salute you!

      Jenn – I don’t preplan, I just start from a voice (about which I know very little but have to discover as I go along) and the central metaphor. All else stems from there during the writing process. They fly off centrifugally from these 2 elements, if that makes any sense. I keep using the word ‘riff’ in trying to explain myself. I don’t know if this translates well enough. Sam Shepard referred to Ornette Coleman’s rhythms helping him shape his play writing. I’m a bit more art noise than jazz, but I take his point.

      marc

      • no i can feel you on that one, for sure. centrifugally, that actually makes a hell of a lot of sense. just today when i wrote Wind i had a totally different character and storyline in mind; and magically (ok, cheesy) the piece turned out differently. so i’m with you there.

  18. An experiment would be to try and write as each other. I say this because my friend Paul read this and said that he felt voice could be imitated. I wonder…

    • As a technique of writing, to imitate another, I think we would mostly fare rather badly as I for example have very poor craft and indulge my own tropes and would find it hard to move out into somebody else’s style. I think each of us is fumbling towards things outside of mainstream writing and so would fare similarly, because we are smeared in our own idiosyncracies of writing approach.

      You can imitate standard, mainstream fare. But frankly, who’d want to?

      marc

  19. Yeah, I agree. I remember some threads on the old Punk Planet forums where people would do imitation posts — Sartre, Bukowski et al. They were all very clever chaps and pulled it off wonderfully. But I wondered if I could imitate anyone, if I’m clever enough to do that, and I wondered if I could imitate any of you — I’m not confident.

    • I think we should ‘Secret Santa’ writing as each other. It would be hilarious and also amazing.

      -Sarah

  20. I just couldn’t do it and pull it off even half-way convincingly. Too wrapped up in my own literary conceits.

    Plus, I can’t even draw stickmen me, so that’s any one who illustrates out of my league

    marc

  21. I think what I might do is take a paragraph out of the Big B’s Post Office and rewrite it in the style of each of you. And never show it to anyone, ever.

    • I’m getting deja vu on this – have we ever discussed Bukowski before?

      I’m not a huge fan but readily acknowledge that I have appended his ‘archetype’ of a barfly to the female character of my novel. So nuff respect to him for that.

      marc

  22. There’s a Secret Santa post in the drafts.

    • ooh ooh off to have a look

      M

      • I think if we pick for ourselves, some of us will never end up picking. It’s more fun if you don’t get to pick, but then again it’s hard to pull off ‘names in a hat’ in the internet world.
        Thinking . . .

        -Sarah

  23. i’m not good enough.

    (it’s why i never joined any writing workshops.)

    ~jenn

  24. I sat in on a writing oourse in Amherst years ago (a friend was taking the class and brought me) and one of the assignments was to immitate Frank O’Hara. Immitation is an art. The students who veered toward parody were reprimanded. I think it was an important excercise in teaching voice. I think in the early years, writers struggle to find their own voice.

    Also, I am down for secret santa.

  25. “And I am sick of the tendency by authors to keep writing the same thing. The reason this happens is because publication engenders self-love in authors, and in order to write something new you must necessarily work not only to discredit your previous book but discredit your whole life.” -quote from blog http://someblindalleys.com/index.php/2009/12/04/the-novel-is-not-dead-but-it-is-silly-to-go-on-writing-the-novel-that-is-dead-over-and-over/ re David shileds article reviewed by Zadie Smith in The Guardian.

    Now I know we’re not formally published in the traditional way, but I feel there is some merit in what this blogger says in the quote and goes some way to pointing up why authors should not be concerned with establishing their authorial voice/style. Hone their craft, keep delving and searching into their approach absolutely, but not to distill from that their colophonic signature to append like the paint artist applies their s to sign off a completed canvas.

    marc

    • Marc I’m not sure if you’re trying deliberately to misunderstand me so as to ease the iterations towards a concrete conclusion, but to repeat again (actually, I think it’s not you but the people on Authonomy who have doing this so apologies):

      I do not think an author should work on establishing a voice. I think voidce is what emerges as a rersult of working on one’s craft. I have repesatedly sai the prime danger of being published in the mainstream way is that is cuts off one’s development and that experimentation is essential to an author developing and not being left in a state of permanent literary adolescence. I also think for the reasons given above, that an author can never hear her/his voice, which makes working on it a pointless exercise.

      I did say that “we can work on it” which is unclear – the clarification comes ni teh next sentence – that we work on the craft and the voice emerges. We cannot work on voice – and the moment we try to we become a self-consciousparoy of ourselves and break the spell of the self-contained world that is actually key to voice.

      Thank you all – I actually feel that in the past 24 hours I have bveen forced to think and rethink and have genuinely learned something that will help my next project – largely, Marc, because of your rejoinders to excise the author from the text. This is something we muct never forget – and for the first time I have a very clear idea of WHY, so a thousand thanks.
      dan

  26. wow, Dan – fantastic post. I found it on Publetariat and traipsed back here to clap my hands

  27. […] believe I found my voice in the writing that followed the discovery of my muse: Paris. I know that for most people, a muse […]

  28. […] post, from Dan Holloway, originally appeared on the Year Zero Writers’ Collective site on 12/5/09 and is reprinted here in its entirety […]

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