Stretching Your Voice

The idea of ‘finding your voice’ is one that comes up a lot in how-to-write-good. While I do think that, to a certain extent, we each have unique writing styles and trying to cram yourself into the wrong style or tone can result in strained and inauthentic results… I also think there’s value to going against the grain.

Deliberately writing outside the comfort zone of what you think your voice is. Just for a bit. Nobody has to see what you’ve produced. You might hate it and never do it again. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t gain something from it. It can be helpful to expand your vocal range.

Doing creative writing at Nottingham, there was a semester where we had a guy who loved Hemingway and Carver’s short stories and wanted us to write like that. So we had to try to write in the most minimalistic style possible. Dramatic POV. Characters couldn’t express their real feelings directly, it had to be hidden in subtext and subtle gestures. Descriptions had to be shorn of all unnecessary words. I wrote a short piece set in a war zone for one seminar, and he said I could remove the tank.

It was hard. I’ve never struggled particularly to be concise – at school teachers were always telling me to add words to things, not remove them – but that kind of minimalism was a different ball game. The story I wrote for that assessment was about a woman with feelings for her boyfriend’s brother, Chris. It’s incredibly emotionally muted. Get a load of these red-blooded humans:

They sat drinking coffee. Jake switched on the TV. The news was on. People had shot a lot of people in Paris and then blown themselves up, in stadiums, restaurants. They sat making disapproving comments as the reporters described what had happened. Many people had been killed and security was being increased in airports and other places. ‘Glad I’m not going yet.’ [Chris said]

‘I’d be quite upset if you were on a plane that got blown up,’ Sarah said.

‘Hmm,’ Jake said.

‘I should think so,’ Chris said. ‘I wouldn’t like it much either.’

‘I guess not,’ Jake said.

Bleh. 650 words in, in desperation to have something happen, I made the characters go play crazy golf for some reason. It’s so, so boring, and unlike anything I’d normally write.

But I’m glad I wrote it. That semester did make me better at writing dialogue, small meaningful actions and gestures, subtext. It was a crash course in ‘show, don’t tell,’ by going to an extreme where nothing whatsoever could be told outright. While I haven’t completely adopted the style I learnt in that semester, it was a useful corrective. My earlier cringy 3edgy5me writing was full of purple prose and bloated, melodramatic exposition, and this taught me how to not do that so badly.

Maybe you tend to write in dramatic POV with a very minimalist style. Well, try writing a stream-of-consciousness or something. Try going first-person and knuckle-deep in your character’s brain meat. It might teach you something. If you write dystopia… try writing a scene in a comedy. And so on.

Making yourself find new ways to approach a task which you have a go-to method for makes you pause, think about what you’re doing rather than running on autopilot. Running on autopilot means not fully noticing what’s going on, not noticing so much where things are badly written or how they could be better. It’s more difficult for me to justify a self-indulgent paragraph of a character ruminating on how edgy they are now that I know there’s more in the toolbox than that big ol’ sledgehammer.

There’s mounds of writing advice about ‘finding your voice’, and with good reason. People have different writing voices just as they have different speaking voices, and getting comfortable in your own skin rather than doing a bad impression of what you think you’re ‘supposed’ to sound like is a valuable thing. However, going outside our comfort zone from time to time can force us to pick up new tools – tools we can bring back inside our comfort zone, and do better stuff with.


2 thoughts on “Stretching Your Voice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s