All this hand-wringing over writers finding their voice. Find your voice, writing instructors told me. Here’s how to find your voice, craft talks assured me. Once you find your voice, it will unlock everything, writing books promised.
I’m starting to question, though, that voice is the big deal everyone seems to think it is. I’m starting to think that voice springs not from some intentional quest for it but from an artist being truthful, to themselves and to their subject. If you care about something deeply—not because you should, and not because you look good online posting about it but because it vibrates in your bones—I don’t think you can help it: voice finds you. Because your voice is you. Your passion, your banality, your secret fears, all the worst and best parts of you.
So voice alone isn’t enough to make your writing interesting. What makes you interesting is the electric charge buzzing on the page when you’re writing about something you can’t help shouting about. The more you talk about it, the louder you get. That’s a good sign. Anger, excitement—it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you care. It’s your purpose. Not in some hocus-pocus, self-help way. It’s just the thing you think about when you wake up in the morning. The thing without which your life is not complete. The thing you would do for free because you love it that much.
So what is that thing? Sometimes the weirder, the better. Maybe it’s how to craft the best goddamn bar soap. Maybe it’s the teaspoons nestled inside blue velvet boxes and tacked up on the wall, a collection gathered by your great-aunt every time she traveled. I could retrace her whole life from that wall of teaspoons. Or maybe it’s Taco Bell. Who knows?
Sometimes the more ubiquitous, the better. You can make us see our everyday world anew. Instead of being surprised by your topic, we’ll be shocked by how we’ve seen it our whole lives but never actually noticed it. Not the way you do. And that’s good, too.
It can be instructive to look at other artists. Is it their voice or their subject matter we know them for?
Anna Sewell, the author of Black Beauty, was a 19th-century disabled woman whose mobility depended on animal labor, so she wrote about animal cruelty, something intimately tied to her own experience of Otherness. Toni Morrison wrote for and about Black women, to demonstrate to them that their experiences and history are every bit as epic, heroic, beautiful, and horrific as any life depicted by Homer or Faulkner or any other white author. Virginia Woolf concerned herself with women’s consciousness—how it works in the mind, what it feels like, and the traumas, grievances, joys, and relationships that compose it.
Looked at like this, it isn’t either-or. It’s both. We love (or despise) artists for how they depict the world and our experiences in it. Yes, their voice is distinctive, but could they have found that way of writing without having found their purpose, their subject, as artists? I doubt it.
No amount of great technique can get a reader to care about something the author is lukewarm on. So what do you care about? What gets your blood boiling, or your toes tingling? What makes you feel alive? We can only answer this question honestly if we know ourselves well. Which requires being brave enough to admit to the parts of ourselves we’re ashamed of. That we feel like social media would probably tear us a new one for admitting to. Got it? Good. Are you terrified of how people may react? Even better. That’s probably your subject.
I started this semester in search of my subject. I think I may have found it. Now? It’s about finding the courage to admit to it.