AWP Nugget: Finding the RIGHT Voice(s)

AWP, CHICAGO: “As a beginning writer I was told to find my voice,” as if it were something lost, Sue William Silverman said at a Friday AWP panel titled “Containing Multitudes: Shifting Voices in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction.” “Was it under the bed?”

Then Sue–author of the best-selling memoirs Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick–shared the truth: “That advice was inherently wrong.”

I would summarize Sue’s remarks to say that in creative writing the voice belongs not to us, but to the work. I think it’s fair to say writers over time develop a certain style–their use of vocabulary, their preferences of sentence length, their embrace of metaphor–but each written work has a unique voice that will allow it to sing.

In the case of Sue’s first memoir, Terror–winner of the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction–she wrote about the trauma of a childhood defined by a sexually abusive father. When you read the book–and you should–you’ll feel the pain and the growth of that child through that voice.

Sue said she struggled with the voice of Love Sick, which is told from the point of view of an adult going through therapy for sexual addiction. The childlike voice of Terror couldn’t work, but the larger issue was that there were actually two voices competing to be heard in the book; the voice of the compulsive addict, and the voice of the woman seeking healing.

I’ll attest to the fact that she handles the dual voices in Love Sick masterfully; the book is plotted over the course of an in-house month of therapy, and with those two voices Sue puts you in the middle of the wrestling match she was experiencing in her own head.

(Sue provides more detail on voice in Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. I know, because currently I’m reading it for the third time.)

It’s fair to say that fiction writers have no limits as to the number of voices they might deploy in a work. Fellow panelist Robert Vivian said that in his first novel, The Mover of Bones, the story is told by 16 different characters. In fact, the backstory of the novel is revealed through these other characters–from a hobo to a legless man–as they interact with Vivian’s main character, Jesse Breedlove. Bob confessed that when he began the novel he had over 50 character points of view.

Voice isn’t just a means to flesh out a character or reveal plot detail. It is at the heart of the work’s coherence.

Sue said “when a piece is not working for me, nine times out of ten it’s because the voice is forced.” I don’t know if Sue attended Margaret Atwood’s lecture–only a third of the conference’s 10,000 attendees could fit in the grand Auditorium Theatre to hear her–but the author of The Handmaid’s Tale and other fine works too cited voice as a primary cause of writer’s block.

Fans often write to Sue, telling her they feel they know the author after reading her two memoirs. I likely did the same thing when I met her in person at my first summer residency last year at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I also met her fellow VCFA lecturer Bob Vivian. Sue told the audience she is flattered when she hears this, but also perplexed. In each book she is only sharing a part of herself, the part the voice demands to be revealed.

“Is neither or both [of the memoirs] the real me?” Sue asked. Of course, no individual can be summarized by one story, or two, no matter how skillfully told. Sue then reflected on a good nugget of wisdom for any creative nonfiction author, but one that also applies to Bob Vivian’s fictional character Jesse Breedlove, who in The Mover of Bones is being seen through so many character’s eyes.

Writing, Sue said, is not merely depicting a life. “It is turning a life into art on the page.”

22 thoughts on “AWP Nugget: Finding the RIGHT Voice(s)

  1. These daily nuggets are gold. How you find the time in your day to pan and sort and polish them, I don’t know. Save yourself a minute and don’t bother responding to this note. Just keep up the good work!


  2. I am so glad I found your blog after several months of searching for a voice that will help me resurrect the writer in me. I’m sure I’ll find much inspiration and guidance from your blogs.


  3. Pingback: AWP 2012 Conference – Chicago « Write on the World

  4. Patrick~thanks for this post. I gave a lecture last month on “awakening your authentic voices.” It started by displacing the unhelpful metaphor of “finding your voice.” Right, as Sue says, as if it were a lost relic buried somewhere deep and as if you had only one to find. And I started with rather counter-intuitive advice that most aspiring writers don’t want to hear: Find dead & remote mentors, and study the rhythms, vibrations, syntax, etc. So you hear their voices. Then imitate and emulate. Put on personas. Stop trying so hard to be original. And let the work itself dictate the voice. It’s not about you; it’s about the work. Of course, writing with voice is more nuanced, but I appreciate the dialogue here.



    1. Hi Jeffrey,

      That sounds like a great lecture; I would have loved to have been there. As for me, I’ve enjoyed taking others’ styles for a ride. There’s a lot to be said for trying on others’ styles, learning from them, and then allowing them to inform your own. It’s not copying, it’s growing.

      Thanks for sharing!


  5. Love the idea that we need to ditch the idea of “finding” our voice, as if it were ever really lost. Our voices are in inside of us, and most times they don’t need to be found, but uncovered. And that starts, as Jeffrey says, with relaxing about being original. Thanks for a great post and many great nuggets from AWP!


    1. I lose my marbles sometimes, but that’s another matter entirely.

      One thing I heard at a panel on blogging was that your blog should have a unique voice–that’s something I teach myself in workshops–but that it doesn’t have to adhere religiously to a voice you’re known for in your prose. I thought that made a lot of sense. A blog is just another written work, it’s just one that keeps going.


      1. Kate Arms-Roberts

        What makes blogging challenging for many writers is that they don’t know who their audience is and why they are writing and that makes it very hard to discover what voice is appropriate.

        And figuring it out in public, by putting our blog out there as we learn, can be scary.


  6. Imitate and emulate…yes, when I started writing with the intent to get published (or produced) I remember a modeling exercise in “Writing the Natural Way” (or was it “The Artist’s Way”?)… anyway, the exercise helped me break out. I saw so clearly the difference between my default mode of writing and how I might write. It’s all about breaking unconscious habits. Good one, Jeffrey.


  7. Suzanne

    And I just ordered Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir because of your endorsement. Can’t wait to get it. Thanks!


    1. Well, my work here is complete!

      Seriously, I think you’ll love it. Sue’s voice in that book isn’t professorial, it’s more conversational. It has writing exercises, but to be honest I don’t do those so much as just try to apply the lessons directly into my writing.


  8. Pingback: AWP 2012 | Creative Writing in the Real World « Write on the World

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