If You’re Struggling to Write, Lead with Voice
Sonya Huber on Defining Voice and How to Use It
When I first heard, as a young person who liked to write, that writing was about “finding your voice,” I got nervous. That seemed very risky: what if I picked the wrong one? And I had a hard time listening to some of those voices in myself and appreciating them. I always thought I should sound different: smarter, more complex, more restrained. And voice vexes writers and teachers. We use the term a lot, and we know it when we see it, but most of us have struggled to define where it comes from or how to encourage it.
I believe that we often hold this sense of voice as “self” or “essence” a little too tightly. The idea of one “authentic” voice is a holdover from a time when we saw each self as singular, isolated, and separate. These days, we’re moving beyond ideas of simple subjectivity and objectivity, and we’re more likely to see the self as constituted in relation to others, in community.
The idea of one “authentic voice” also doesn’t make sense to me in terms of a writer’s process and life. If a writer happens upon that so-called authentic voice, does that mean the previous voices were false or impostors? Would that authentic voice then, once discovered, stay constant and reliable, even as the writer’s life affects changes and perspectives evolve?
When we try to describe voice, most of us slip into plurals and a chorus of voices. In The Writer’s Voice A. Alvarez describes poet Sylvia Plath having finally come into her “authentic voice.” Then, getting into the details of the poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” Alvarez describes it as “a poem in two voices” which “speak out and clash continually through the poem.” This comes up a lot: the idea of “voice” made of “voices.” Poet Adrienne Rich expressed this same impulse in the poem “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev,” which is about a women’s climbing team:
If in this sleep I speak
it’s with a voice no longer personal
(I want to say with voices)
Her use of the parenthesis hedges and shifts her meaning, and then within them she offers a sense of the speaker’s own voices in a plural chorus, adding layers, authority, and depth.Voices impel the telling, and the braiding and melody of their resonance and dissonance are what creates an urgency in the tale.
The Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin described “intonation” as “the point where language intersects with life.” Bakhtin also believed in and wrote a lot about the fact that a piece of writing could have “many voices” even when written by a single author; he coined the term heteroglossia to describe this phenomenon.
For all of these reasons and more, I’ve decided to reclaim the word “voices” as a tool in the service of writing. As Felicia Rose Chavez describes in her book The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, a question about the definition of a literary term can be turned into an investigation of process, with the test of “How does your definition influence the way you read and write?”
I got an in-depth opportunity to explore voice when the volume and speed of mine began to slow down about a decade ago, staggering under the weight of fatigue and chronic pain from rheumatoid arthritis. The words to vent and worry and rage in my journal came slowly. It didn’t even feel like writing, because it was sluggish and awkward. Imagine a river that has dried to a trickle. Everything around that rivulet of water changes in response to the water level. The riverbed accumulates silt, and the water stands in shallow pools. Plants from the banks begin to grow in the mud and algae. Before long, everything about the river looks different.
Then I began to get beyond the emotions, to try to capture my experience of living with chronic pain. Eventually I began to learn that I had different speeds and modes. Some days were slow pain days, so the writing was slow and odd. Other days I felt okay, and other days the pain was a vague irritation that caught me around 11 am. I focused on the quick, good days, and I put the pain writing into a separate file, figuring it was at least good for my mental health.
When I looked a few years later at that pain file, I saw that out of desperation, I had started to let myself play with language. I had not made a rhetorical choice about audience or purpose. I was consciously trying to talk only to myself, privately, about the new world I inhabited, to understand where I was, to accumulate notes about this new landscape. I was trying to summon voices from the edges of my own life that would help me interpret the challenges I faced. In writing only for myself, I wrote into a fierce confidence that summoned my ability to not give up. I named that voice Pain Woman.
To counteract my tendency to hide, my own desire to be agreeable or not offend, naming Pain Woman as a separate voice seemed give me permission to channel something outside of my public mask. She pushes me to say what I think, to listen to the bold voice inside me, and then to follow that voice, to let it grow, to see it and understand it, and to feed it, knowing I can always switch to another one.
And now I can’t stop naming voices: Hayseed Punk-Rock Girl, I’ve Lost My Shoes, Fierce German Peasant. In letting myself loose a bit, in looking for the weird voices in my own life and head and letting them out, I found new ways to say things and new perspectives on my life.
Even the voice of this piece—the Voice that Loves Voice, I suppose—is one among several essaying voices. It has more of my speech in it, and gestures, and specifically the direct way I talk in the classroom, using shorter words and phrases and more images and some terrible mixed metaphors and similes. I have some confidence in this odd choice only because I have heard myself teaching over a number of years, and this voice has been honed as my body and voice and expression developed in conversation with other writers.
This voice was a collective project, edited by many young people who sat and either smiled at me or pulled up their hoodies and put their heads on their desks, and my language changed in the direction of their engagement, in response to what worked. Naming it as one of my teaching voices gives me confidence in it and helps me pay attention to its qualities and then helps me inquire into where it comes from and what its lineage is.
Voices, to me, are the engines inside us that summon and refract meaning. Paisley Rekdal defines voice as “a ceaseless stream of impressions formed through memory, sense, and emotion, all of which trigger more memories and emotions as we internally narrate the story of our lives.” I love this sense of a voice-river that is the font of story and speech, and to extend the metaphor, that river could have many currents and inlets and eddies which can float leaves or turn into shallow rapids. Voices provide the link between our thoughts and the way those thoughts come out into the world.
“Style” is often used to mean a series of habits and moves with language, the surface thumbprint of sentences and words that an author tends toward. I believe that that toolbox—all of a writer’s go-to words and phrases and comfortable sentence constructions—is what many writers have meant when they talk about “authentic voice.” While style might be the toolbox, voices are the things in your ears that whisper what to build, that react to a cut of lovely cherry wood and say, oh, make this a hearth. Voices impel the telling, and the braiding and melody of their resonance and dissonance are what creates an urgency in the tale.
Voice includes techniques and craft elements, including the ones you loved so much—or were exposed to over and over—that you adopted them into your manner of speaking and writing. Voices are made up of styles, but they have a much deeper source. Voice (to pile on a bunch of metaphors in a very “incorrect” way) is the seed or nutrient that makes ideas and insights gel. It’s the yolk that nourishes and grows whatever writing chicken will be roaming around out there in the world. Voice isn’t a spice you add in after you’re done cooking a dish. Voice is the ground where the crops are grown to make the bread.
No matter what genres you’re writing in, the notion of voices in your work may help you explore a full range of options for what you want to write about and how. I think our storehouse of voices crosses genre lines, and the more we train and explore them, the more our writing options will grow.
Hanging around in three-dimensional life, interviewing and talking to people from all over, I have always been impressed with the music of expression, with the everyday brilliance of language. As a teacher, I’m amazed that one of the best ways to help a fellow writer when they’re stuck is to let them talk, to take and transcribe what they tell me. Spoken language, often combined with the movement of the face, hands, and body, animates and enlivens. We become thought; we feel voice; we act out ideas on the small stage of our being. Crafting a good tweet, with its tight space limits, requires the writer to borrow the brilliance of spoken expression. The poet Robert Frost wrote that people harvest sounds and idea from a flow of speech, “where they grow spontaneously.”
As poet Jillian Weise pointed out to me, the conception of “voice” might be taken as ableist, as would any metaphor in which one sense—vision or speech—is relied upon to carry the freight of an entire web of expression. This has deep implications not only for this book but for the fields of writing and rhetoric; our metaphors privilege certain bodies and modes of expression. Voice is just as much present in the fluidity and gestures of sign language or using an assistive device, impelling our communications. This is all the more reason, I think, to loosen up and allow for voices, to open the idea outward into the mysterious cloud of invisible triggers that kindle, enliven, and embody expression.
Many writers I’ve known in the course of my teaching career have also struggled with this sense that their writing is not theirs or that they can’t hear or can’t bear to hear themselves. It bothers me that many people feel alienated from this essential element of expression, from writing as a way to think and have conversations with our past and present selves.
Thinking about voice first provides another way to start writing, a relational view in which we get in touch with voices to see what they might want to say and who might want to listen. Brenda Ueland writes of this act of discovery in her classic book If You Want to Write: “At last I understood that writing was this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had. Not to preach to them, but to give it to them if they cared to hear it.”
Voices can form this sense of connection between reader and writer. When the writer or narrator feels like a friend and displays the signals and pauses and humanity of a person speaking, the text builds up “an environment of companionable warmth” and “an atmosphere of connectedness, of relationally.” A relationship is established between speaker and audience when we imagine this choral support.
Such support can be especially vital if a writer comes from a community or perspective that is often denigrated or dismissed. In her framework for an anti-racist writing workshop, Felicia Rose Chavez recommends “a pedagogy of deep listening—to one’s self, to one’s workshop leader, and to every member of the collective—ensuring equal access to voice.”
Voice is a flame that has to be protected, and there were times in my own life when I let other people tell me what a voice was supposed to sound like. Real-life troubles affected my voice, to the point where I couldn’t be honest on the page or feel some of my emotions. And our interactions with people are often messed up, infused with power imbalances and judgment, racism and sexism and homophobia and ableism.
Writing in the classroom has often made people self-conscious about their powers of expression, so that they then think they’re not good writers or good thinkers. That people feel like they can’t express themselves or that they’re not qualified to do so is an avoidable tragedy. I see this every time I tell someone I teach writing and the person I’m talking to—a nurse, a bank teller, an accountant, a plumber—instinctively winces like I’m going to correct the sentences that come out of their mouths with a red pen.
The good news is that, even if our writing voices have been shut down or suppressed or ignored, the voices are still there, waiting to be channeled to. Voices continue to flow and combine. Voice is made up of the words you like and the words that hurt you and that you reclaimed and the way you in particular put words together to try to describe the indescribable.
Much of the credit for this idea goes to Peter Elbow, whose writing has been so important to me throughout my career as a writer and teacher. The teaching of composition has swung away from his theories, often incorporating elements of his work (like the freewrite) but not fully crediting the expressivist school of thought for its impact on the way we teach today. Elbow has continued to pursue the question of voice in writing, always allowing his investigations to evolve. Elbow argues that writers need to be supported in reconnecting to the source of their expression, which is language and thought itself.
Voices are grown by those who have nurtured and supported us, by the way our bodies absorb the sounds and touches, rhythms and gestures and expressions that we’ve been bathed in. And listening to the voices of our communities—absorbing them as valuable and life-giving elements, as brilliant threads that carry messages for surviving and thriving in their sounds and cadences—can also heal. Our voices each have truths to offer, and some of the best writing comes from merging voices, braiding them, and letting them free.
I want as many people as possible to get the option of feeling that same kind of fluidity in writing, to feel that writing is theirs, that they can do whatever they want with the alphabet, that they are not at all deficient in the raw material that makes for good, engaging, lively, soulful sentences.
As I asked my fellow writers about their experiences with voice, many highlighted how voice seems to creep into writing through immersion in subject matter, through deep research, or through deep feeling with a subject. I have also sensed this general connection between voice and investment in a piece of writing, and this connection between author and subject can help us reveal and exercise a range of voices that can be activated for whatever writing task is at hand.
Voice—if it’s a living thing—is always pushing at the edges of genre, swinging from the boundaries like a jungle gym. The limitation of genre can give voices a place to play. If we feel something, voice is what guides us to get the mess onto the page. When we follow a voice and listen to what it’s telling us, we can then figure out what genre might be most appropriate for the task.
Starting to write in a genre can call forth a standardized or expected voice, which is often very helpful to get started.
But the other way is to start with voice—the one that feels connected to your existence and your body. You can write first the way you speak and then, as Elbow says, be pragmatic and edit to “get rid of most of the voice problems for readers” by fitting your voice-generated writing within the form. Elbow shares the benefit of the second way as it builds over time: “When I use the voice or voices that I experience as mine . . . for exploratory and private and early draft writing and try them out on myself and others—listening to them and in appreciating them—these voices tend to get richer and develop. For example, an insecure voice tends to become more confident. Gradually I find I have more flexibility of voice—more voices that feel like me.”
Voice comes far before genre, allowing us to write in a way that “feels like us” even when we’re writing a report, giving us the option to express things that feel true. Each voice reveals different truths; voices may reveal truths that contradict one another. The voices we practice become stronger, so that we essentially make ourselves up over time. Voice determines what we absorb from the world as well as what we say and what genres seem appropriate to say it. Writers can discover a wide range of voices—beyond voices intending to deceive, to woo, and to wrestle the audience into submission—so that they can hear or sense themselves as they choose to communicate.
Voice work can help us write better and also learn about ourselves, inhabit ourselves more fully, figure out what to write and how to write it. After I began to think about getting comfortable with a huge range of voices every time I sat down to the keyboard, I also began to be tempted by wilder voice options. I wanted to try everything we’re told not to do with voice. What if you let your sixth-grade voice write your quarterly report? What if your research paper started with a full-on rant? What were some more rules about voice and genre that I could break?
I encourage writers to start a list of the voices they slip into. When I’m stuck in one voice, I often forget about the other options, but when I go back to my list, it frees me up to see how many different ways I might tell a story and how many different questions I might ask myself. Every time I write, I catch a new one.
Writers can explore and name multiple versions of themselves at different points in time and experiment with the voices associated with those selves. Even in scribbles that are far away from finished or shareable, you might see glimmers of a voice. You can take your wild and authentic and causal expression, your freewrites and your sketches, and trace within them your own complex lineage, asking yourself about all the influences that formed the way you express yourself. Then you can consciously decide to feed and grow certain voices, to analyze and understand them, to study them to see what makes them tick, and to use them to not only enliven your writing but also to create new genres and styles and forms.
Adapted from Voice First: A Writer’s Manifesto by Sonya Huber by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2022 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.