The eternal quest to find your writing voice
By Nava Atlas
When the movie Dirty Dancing (1987) came out, I was often told that I resembled “Baby,” the lead female character played by Jennifer Grey. If I sat in a corner at a restaurant or at a gathering, friends sometimes delivered the film’s iconic line—”Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”— considering themselves completely hilarious. But I liked corners, and I still do. They’re cozy, and it’s easy to blend into the woodwork. Putting oneself in a corner, though, either in the real world, or on the printed page, is the equivalent of whispering. Women tend to do that a lot, especially when we’re unsure of our own voices.
When I started working on The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, a collection of first-person narratives by classic women authors on their experiences and challenges as writers, I was content to whisper in the margins of the pages of the book. Alongside the musings of twelve classic authors of the past (Alcott, Austen, Brontë, Alcott, Wharton, Woolf, and six others), my role was to comment on how their experiences and challenges resonate with today’s writing women. Since I myself designed the pages, I set my comments in tiny type, and tried to hide them as best I could in the pages’ gutters. That ended when the book found a publisher, and the editor firmly told me I could no longer whisper in the corner, neither metaphorically or literally.
At first, raising my voice above a whisper wasn’t easy. All those familiar “Who do you think you are...” demons rushed in to fill the void where confidence should have been firmly in place. “Finding your voice” is a writing directive that teeters on cliché. Yet, what’s more important than developing a distinctive personality in print? Without a firm grip on voice, you’re left either with whispering shyly, or its flip side, endlessly blathering streams of overwrought prose or poetry, the literary equivalent of nervous chatter
What advice would revered classic authors have for those of us still seeking to find or define our voice and style? Here are a few thoughts from writers who went through much the same as most of us, and emerged to tell the tale:
“Every young writer has to work off the ‘fine writing’ stage. It was a painful period in which I overcame my florid, exaggerated, foamy-at-the-mouth, adjective-spree ... I knew even then it was a crime to write like I did, but I had to get the adjectives and the youthful fervor worked off. I believe every young writer must write whole books of extravagant language to get it out.” —Willa Cather, from an interview, 1915
“I didn’t have any particular gift in my twenties. I didn’t have any exceptional qualities ... The only reason I finally was able to say exactly what I felt was because, like a pianist practicing, I wrote every day. There was no more than that. There was no studying of writing, there was no literary discipline, there was only the reading and receiving of experience.” —Anais Nïn, from an essay, 1975
Each person’s method is no rule for another. Each must work in [her] own way, and the only drill needed is to keep writing and profit from criticism ... Read the best books, and they will improve your style. See and hear good speakers and wise people, and learn of them. Work for twenty years, and then you may some day find that you have a style and place of your own, and you can command good pay for the same things no one would take when you were unknown. —Louisa May Alcott, from a letter to a reader, 1878
I suspect that most of us have an inkling of what our literary voice should be, but what’s missing is the courage to use it. Raised to be good girls, many of us are reluctant to sound too strong, assertive, unconventional, or too much like the self we know is in there somewhere, clamoring to come out. The best remedy, simple though it seems, is to write in quantity, vast quantity if possible, allowing yourself to do mediocre (or even terrible) work, a practice that will eventually peel back the layers of self-consciousness to reveal a true voice. As for me, I still like to sit in corners in restaurants and at parties, but on the page—not so much any more.