MONTPELIER, VT: “In a creative writing project, voice is everything.” So said Sue William Silverman at a lecture here at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing summer residency. Sue, an accomplished memoirist and longtime VCFA instructor, was joined in the lecture–titled “Containing Multitudes: Shifting Voices in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction”–by fellow VCFA instructors and skilled writers Connie May Fowler and Robert Vivian.
If voice truly is everything in writing, how do we find our voice? Well, Sue said, start by realizing that’s the wrong question. As a beginning writer, Sue said she was constantly told to “find her voice,” as if “I had lost it, perhaps under the sofa… There is no such thing as a voice.” The title of the lecture “Containing Multitudes” borrows from Walt Whitman’s proclamation in “Song of Myself” of his multitudes of being.
So what takeaways did I learn about our creative writing voices? Let me list a few below.
- A work’s voice is all about trust. Robert said that a writer needs to trust that the right voice will emerge, so it is essentially “self-trust.” When a writer truly trusts herself, the voice will come, and with ease. He said we could learn from Robert Keats, who wrote “If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.”
- It’s all about hearing. Ernest Hemingway, Robert said, would hear his way through a story. Robert himself reads his fiction and essays to his wife, so he can hear it aloud as shared with another. When it sounds right, it likely is the right voice.
- The story chooses the voice. Connie said that when reading we should study closely the opening lines of our favorite prose. It is in those first few lines that the writer establishes the voice that will carry you through the work.
Word choice matters. Sue’s first memoir was from the perspective of an abused child. Her second was that of a sex addict resisting recovery. Her memoir due out next year, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo Saxon Jew, has an ironic voice of a “Jewish narrator who is stalking Christianity.” Read your words aloud, Sue said. A harsh word said by the sex addict wouldn’t be know to her child narrator and likely would be too dark for her ironic narrator.
- Voice can evolve within a work. It is challenging, Connie said, but a narrator’s voice can progress as the narrator herself progresses. This can be true in a memoir that covers a span from childhood to adulthood, for example. Ultimately the voice should be true to where the narrator is at that moment in space and time.
- Don’t overlook the revision process. The word “revision” is essentially a “re-vision,” seeing your work anew. But perhaps, he said, it should be “re-hearing,” for it’s in the listening to our own words that we can hear where the voice isn’t true.
I have a lot to process from this remarkably insightful lecture that, unfortunately, only lasted an hour. But I think what speaks to me most is the Keats quote Robert cited in discussing self-trust.
The essay I wrote to have workshopped here at my final MFA residency did not start out coming naturally as a leaf to a tree. My first draft stalled after 8 pages, and when I read those pages I was bored; not a good sign. The second one never got past a page. I just kept staring at the screen. Then I asked my subconscious ghostwriter to help me one night as I went to sleep. The next morning what came to me was not a subject for an essay, but a voice, one that was a bit nasty and cranky. I sat down to let that bitter crank rant, and the next thing I knew I had more than twenty pages of prose. It turned out that the crankiness was a mask for the narrator’s aching insecurity. I submitted the essay knowing that the leaf had adhered to the tree.
What has been your experience in finding the right voice for your work? Do you go in with a sense of the voice in mind? Or does it emerge organically as you write? Have you attempted to have a voice evolve over the course of a story?