Recently, I was wandering around a bookstore and came upon a sales table. You know, the one with all the marked down books– $4.99! $2.50! $6.99! I was drawn to a slim black volume, and saw that it was called Mortality, by the essayist Christopher Hitchens. I’d read some of Hitchens’ columns for Vanity Fair, but had never read any of his books.
When I saw that Mortality was a series of memoirish essays about his terminal cancer diagnosis, I opened it up and became immediately engrossed.
I purchased the book, brought it home, and just finished reading it.
In one of the amazing passages in the book, Hitchens talks about losing his actual speaking voice to esophageal cancer, and reminisces about an old employer. He says, “I owe a vast debt to Simon Hoggart of the Guardian, who about thirty-five years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write ‘more like the way you talk’…. To my own writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy to grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: ‘How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?”
I love this passage, because what Hitchens is saying is that accessing your own voice (the way you talk) on the page is only part of becoming a distinctive writer. You also have to have something interesting to say.
The way you write should reflect the specific way you see and process the world. But it also must lift the reader up into a world of larger original ideas. In just the same way a great conversation at a party pulls you in and holds you to the idiosyncratic person you’re conversing with, so must your pages engage the mind of the reader or viewer. This holds true for non-fiction, fiction and screenwriting.
So, what steps can you take to ensure you are accessing all parts of your voice in your pages?
1. Write the way you talk. Your unique vernacular will inform your characters and the way you tell a story. If you have access to your own original way of revealing narrative, your project will reflect the specificity of who you are, as a writer.
2. Write the way you think. How will you lead your reader or viewer to process the situations in your story? What unique insights and original commentary and themes will you leave them with?
3. Write something that takes you out of your comfort zone. Something that scares the crap out of you, that will force you to tackle new forms and ideas. Write something that demands you stretch, and in this process, take your readers with you.
4. Channel. And by this I mean, as you write, try to be as free from judgment of your own words as you can. If you are truly “channeling” your story– letting it come through you without immediate censorship– you will mine the specific gold in who you are. This will help you tap your voice.
5. Steer clear of the banal. Avoid stock phrases, easy conclusions. What’s something we’ve never seen or heard before? An image that’s truly innovative?
6. Read Your Pages Aloud. To yourself or others. Do your pages sound fresh and unique? Could this script or book ONLY be written by you?
Thinking about “voice,” as a writer, can be confusing. Remember just this. Your voice is how you tell the story. How you reveal your characters, the situations they find themselves in, and the places they are taken in their transformation.
Read this sentence in Mortality aloud. “The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed. Think of your own favorite authors and see if that isn’t precisely one of the things that engages you, often at first without your noticing it. A good conversation is the only human equivalent: the realizing that decent points are being made and understood, that irony is in play, and elaboration, and that a dull or obvious remark would be almost physically hurtful.” Can you hear Hitchens’ voice? I can…
Take Action! No matter what you are writing, ask yourself, “Will my reader/audience feel personally addressed by my specific brain? Am I truly telling my story in a unique and singular way?” Write the way you talk and think. Write something that makes you stretch. Channel. Avoid cliches and read your pages aloud.
This is the way into your voice.
Your readers/viewers are waiting.
Can they hear you?
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