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.”


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

I’m afraid of writing. How can I push back? — Frequent Questions

Q: I’m afraid of writing. How can I push back?
A: Didn’t your mother tell you it’s not nice to push?

I realized the other day that I was doing it again: procrastinating. Day after day, this project appeared on my To-Do List. Day after day, it remained the only thing not crossed off.

And then I realized: Dammit, I’m afraid.

Afraid of writing? “The less I fight my fear, the less it fights back.” Elizabeth GilbertI’ve been doing this writing thing for a long time now. You’d think by now I’d recognize fear when it came calling. I do generally recognize it faster than before—that’s progress. (This piece isn’t due for another three weeks). But still, it chagrined me that Fear was able to slip on a trench coat and a fake mustache and slip right past my defenses. I tell myself I should know better by now.

Oh, one more thing. This project I was afraid to start? It’s a presentation I’m giving. About courage.

Afraid of writing? Join the club

Everybody feels fear around their writing from time to time. Whether it’s fear of starting to write, fear of your subject matter, fear of inadequacy…Fear, like the British royal family heading to a wedding, wears many hats. If only it would adopt their distinctive wave too, it would be so much easier to spot.

The best way to get over fear of starting to write is—you will not be surprised—to write. Make a commitment to just 15 minutes a day, every day. If that feels too long, do 10—or even 5. But do it. Find an accountability partner, or join a group. I’m in the middle of leading a 5-day Writing Challenge right now. But you can sign up to hear about the next challenge I’m launching. And proceeds go to charity—so if doing something good for yourself isn’t motivation enough, do something good for someone else.

If you’ve got it in your head that you’re not creative, or you don’t deserve to spend the time on yourself, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote her book Big Magic especially for you. Seriously. Read it this minute.

One thing I often remind my coaching clients—and it’s something that helped me when I was so afraid of writing that I never did it—is:

No one needs to see it.

I emphasize this to take away the fear that someone will read your writing and say negative things about it. Also to stop you from saying negative things about it pre-emptively. While you’re creating, you can keep your writing safe and secure in your computer. Unless you print it out or email it somewhere, no one needs to see it.

But…

Someone does need to see it eventually

First maybe a teacher. A writing group. We all improve with constructive feedback.

But don’t get so caught up in this semi-private feedback loop that you never open your work up to the public.

Trust your instinct, yes. But don’t trust your fear. If your writing group says it’s good, if your coach says it’s good—then push your little bird of a draft out of the nest and publish it. Start a blog. Put it up on Medium or HuffPo. This gets easier the more you do it. Validation awaits you—and validation feels so much better than fear.

If your writing is stuck in the closet, read Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work! I’m not usually a fan of exclamation points, but this subject deserves one.

Write! Now!


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Perfection – the worst goal ever

“Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” — Mark Twain

You can always count on Mark Twain for exactly the right sentiment. If he’d invented the greeting card industry instead of trying to automate the printing press, he might not have gone bankrupt.

I’ve written about perfection before—about how my favorite coach, Sam Bennett (no relation), reminds us to “Get a C.”

My favorite guru, Seth Godin, translates that as “Ship your work.” Don’t wait for it to be perfect, because such a state doesn’t exist.

My education primed me for this early on, because my school didn’t use letter grades. Teachers graded us on a scale of 1-100. And of course, no one ever expected to get 100 because we all—teachers and students—understood that perfection doesn’t exist. Until one of my friends produced a paper so exquisite in every way that the teacher had to give it 100—her husband, a New York Times columnist, argued her into it. It was the schoolyard equivalent of Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10; the grade heard ’round the world. Or at least ’round the Upper East Side of New York.

But in real life, the folks judging you don’t usually get an assist from a New York Times columnist. In that world, perfection—if it exists—is fleeting and exceedingly rare. Better not to aim for the bull’s-eye of 100 when you can much more frequently hit the fatter target of the 90s. Even the 80s is perfectly respectable. But when you don’t ship your work, you have absolutely no chance of hitting the target at all.

That’s a form of perfection, too: a perfect failure. The worst goal ever.Austin Kleon reframes the idea of perfection

So don’t be perfect in your failure; be imperfect in your attempts to shine, to make a difference. Go read Austin Kleon’s invaluable book Show Your Work!—you can easily finish it in a weekend. And then do it: Show your work, warts and all.

Because nobody’s perfect. So stop trying.