'Voice' Isn't the Point of Writing

Whether crafting fiction or how-to manuals, self-expression is a negotiation.

Drew Coffman/Flickr

Find your own voice. That's what teachers told me in creative-writing classes when I was in college 20 years ago—it's what the Guardian trumpeted as the goal of creative writing courses just this month. It's what old grizzled writers always tell the young, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed up-and-coming wannabes. With one voice they all declare, "You are unique, you and your bushy tail. Get that uniqueness on the page. Every one of you speak your true self truly, as only you can speak it, in a swelling chorus of soulful idiosyncrasy."

I took the advice to heart, or tried to, when I was young and bushy-tailed and trying (like all the other writers) to get my work published in literary magazines read only by the other writers trying to get their work published, so we could all bond in appreciating one another's individuality. I discovered that when my own voice was like Flannery O'Connor's, I could sometimes get accepted; less so when my voice was like Ogden Nash's, as in the clerihew below that I wrote years ago when I was young and foolish and trying to get into MFA programs:

Beneath the wig of Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach,

Vermin flock.

The chittering of invertebrata

Inspired a fugue and toccata.

You could argue with Harold Bloom about whether or how great writers past found their own voice (via agonized Bloomian rejection of mentors or via other means.) But the argument is academic; for most folks, if you're going to be successful, it's best to find that your own voice is similar to the voice of someone on the prescribed list of folks who found a good voice before you. (Pro tip: Ogden Nash and Edmund Bentley are not among them.)

Here, of course, I merely echo the complaints of many before me, who have sneered at hidebound literary magazines in which every other story is written by Joyce Carol Oates or her clone, and all the poems are by Wallace Stevens or Robert Hass or some unholy combination of the two. But however disillusioning my experience with the creative writing establishment was, I have to admit it was good preparation for actually making a living as a writer.

Because the truth is, if you want to get paid as a writer, finding your own voice can be a distraction—even a hindrance. The bulk of writing opportunities that will actually provide you with a living wage are work-for-hire—writing textbook entries, or exam questions, or website content boilerplate. And when you're doing work-for-hire, no one cares about your voice. Or rather, they do care, in that they actively don't want anything to do with it. The point of work-for-hire is to make your voice disappear into the house style.

Mostly that style is flat and factual. ("The enormous growth of world population in the last hundred years has been sparked by advances in medicine and disease prevention, by increases in life expectancy, and by agricultural improvements.") Sometimes, if you're lucky, you might get a gig where you're supposed to be entertaining or silly or punchy—where you're allowed to explain in a study guide that Gone With the Wind is "Not evil-cool like a horror movie or a Slayer album or a big awesome action movie. But evil-evil, as in filled with hate." But even then, you're only as silly as the boss decides you should be—and whatever you say is going to be tinkered with and rejiggered by multiple editors, so that you can't even be sure if it was you who wrote that Gone With the Wind was "evil-evil." I like the line, but can I swear at this point that every part of it is mine? Work-for-hire means not even knowing which bit is your voice when it's shouting at you.

Work with a byline is more individual—but again, only within limits. As with work-for-hire, there's always a house style, and you have to conform. Rutgers University Press cut my joke about Eric Clapton from my forthcoming book on Wonder Woman, and insisted I use "whom" as the objective case of "who," even though I think it sounds archaic and overly formal. Writing for the mainstream press, I've had to dump my paragraph long sentences with the piles of subordinate clauses and the aggressive alliteration. And of course, to write for the Atlantic, you usually need to write about things that the Atlantic is interested in. Sometimes you can get lucky and a mainstream site will let you write about some forgotten gem, but usually the calculus is more straightforward. Nicki Minaj's latest video, yes. But an unknown, gorgeous, random 2002 YA book about kids being turned into manta rays by an evil scientist?

I did write about Ann Halam's Dr. Franklin's Island at my own site—one of the nice things about the Internet is that it provides venues where you can natter on, unfiltered by editors, and largely unencumbered by an audience. I enjoy doing that. But is the voice that speaks to no one my only one and true real voice? And, for that matter, it's not like I typically post Ogden-Nash-esque poetry in my own space. People are more interested in my criticism, so I tend to tailor what I say and how I say it to an audience, even when I'm not answerable to an editor. Nobody is rejecting my pitches, maybe, but I've got other voices in my head, warning me that if I suddenly decide my authentic voice is fiction, folks who go to the blog for critical writing are not going to be amused.

Perhaps there's someone out there so famous or so obscure that they can say whatever they will in public in a unique voice untouched by editors or market considerations. But for the vast majority of working scribblers, writing is less about finding your own voice than about figuring out how to say something someone, somewhere will pay you for, or at least listen to. If there's a voice, it's always an adjusted and negotiated voice, rather than a pure effusion of individuality.

And that's not a bad thing. Writing is partly about individual expression. But it's also about communication and community. Language is a social thing; it exists between people. The voice you hear in your head, the language you speak to yourself—that's not just your voice or your language. It belongs, to some degree, to everybody. Which is what's so magical about language. It connects you to other people. You speak through them, and they speak through you, which is how, with unexpected familiarity, we understand each other.