I remember exactly when I found my own voice as a writer. It happened one day when I least expected it and I didn’t even notice…
We all emulate our heroes in the beginning, whether we try to or not. I would devour books by my new-favourite author or style and then pour my version of their voices into my writing. Short stories with poetic run-on sentences and magic realist plotlines? Well, I’d been reading Rushdie and Márquez. Description-heavy horror laced with the perfumes of Anne Rice’s novels? No prizes for guessing what I’d just read. Wry tales poking fun at the craziness of the world? *runs off to put Vonnegut and Conrad novels back on shelf*
So you’re sitting there and this new type of story is weaving onto your page. You’re excited. ‘Perhaps this is my voice,’ you think, reading over your work and feeling pretty impressed. But then you try to write another, and it doesn’t come out quite the same. It’s just not in you.
I call this ‘writing under the influence’. You’ve been filling yourself with another’s words and there’s a finite supply, leaving you nowhere to go except back to the bookshelf to refuel.
Let me just say that writing under the influence is a good thing. It’s where you explore your craft, learn different styles and techniques and generally build up your tool kit as a writer. But one day you’ve got to go cold-turkey and leave that behind. Trouble is, you can’t just say, ‘I’m ready now, bring out my voice’. Your voice is more likely to sneak up on you. Maybe it will even hit you over the head with a thud. It works in mysterious ways.
I stopped writing under the influence the day I decided to write something really silly. I say silly because it was a story that harked back to the ones I’d told myself as a teenager, and I dismissed it as being as self-indulgent as pretty much everything else I did in the 1980s. But I decided I’d write it anyway because I wasn’t working on anything else and it might be a bit of fun, though I told myself I’d never let anyone read it (a complete lie, it turns out).
As soon as I started, the words poured out. Have you ever had that? Time disappears. Five hours feels like minutes. The cat moves to a new home because you don’t hear it mewing for dinner. Every moment spent writing is pure, unadulterated joy. (Sorry puss.)
The best thing is, you’re not overthinking each sentence or putting pressure on yourself to write your ‘masterpiece’. For me, writing that manuscript was the best fun I’d ever had – I fell in love with my characters and was completely gripped by their story.
And you know what? As I continued working on it, I realised it was also the best thing I’d ever written. I had found my voice. *cue trumpets and clouds parting* Sneaky bugger had crept up on me when I was too busy being happy to notice.
That manuscript gained me an agent and interest from a major publisher – not bad for something I’d almost ignored. (Note to self: you can be an idiot sometimes.) It made me realise, we put so many things in our own way – fears, expectations, busy-ness etc etc. Freeing yourself to write the stupidest thing you can think of, or the story you’re secretly embarrassed about having in your head, could be the best thing you ever do.
So if you’re still searching for your voice, get out of your own way and follow your joy, because you never know where it will lead you. Hopefully, it leads you straight to yourself.