How can I find my voice? — Frequent Questions

Q: How can I find my voice?
A: What was it wearing when you saw it last?

Truly, one of the most frequent of the frequent questions new writers ask me is some variation of “How do I find my voice?”

I understand: No one wants to be derivative. No one with a brain, anyway. We all want to be uniquely creative, to string together the 26 letters of our alphabet in new and exciting ways. Good luck with that!

Hey, we writers should count our blessings: musical composers have even fewer building blocks to work with—only 12 tones in the chromatic scale. Try arranging a dozen notes in a completely original way. It’s maddening.

How do you find your voice?

find your voice by reading

Billy Collins, photo by PEN American Center, CC BY 2.0

Since it’s “your voice” everyone says you need to find, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s somewhere inside you, just waiting to get out. But poet Billy Collins, speaking at a White House conference on poetry, told his young audience:

“It is not lying within you. It is lying in other people’s poetry. It is lying on the shelves of the library. To find your voice, you need to read deeply.”

I hardly need to add that this White House conference took place during the previous administration. And the link to it in Austin Kleon’s discussion of the writer’s voice leads nowhere. (Really? The Trumpsters had to take down all of Obama’s links?)

Collins talks about reading poetry, but writers need to read everything. Read lots of the kinds of things you want to write (or think you want to write) and then heaping tablespoons of everything else. Everything. Here’s Collins again:

“And in your reading, you’re searching for something. Not so much your voice. You’re searching for poets that make you jealous. Professors of writing call this ‘literary influence.’ It’s jealousy. And it’s with every art, whether you play the saxophone, or do charcoal drawings. You’re looking to get influenced by people who make you furiously jealous.

Read widely. Find poets that make you envious. And then copy them. Try to get like them….

[S]ay, ‘Okay, I didn’t write that poem, let me write a poem like that, that’s sort of my version of that.’ And that’s basically the way you grow…”

Read a lot. Write a lot. Then do lots more of each. Eventually, your writing will stop sounding like other people’s and start sounding like yours. And then, the magic:

“After you find your voice, you realize there’s really only one person to imitate, and that’s yourself.”

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