Is Writing Advice Around “Voice” Like Career Advice Around “Passion”?

Career advisors obsess about passion: Pursue your passion, do what you're passionate about, follow your bliss, love your work, etc.

I don't disagree that it's glorious to engage in work you are passionate about.

I do question the usefulness of making passion the center of work-related advice. That's because passion doesn't seem to take very well to a direct approach. That is, directly asking yourself, "What am I passionate about?" seems as often to lead to a self-delusion as a truth, and most of the time leads to, "I don't know" or "Many different things, equally" which, if the reflective cycle stops there, has produced nothing but a bit more anxiety in an anxious world. Better, for example, to first recognize that passion alone does not a happy career make, and then second, approach the idea of passion indirectly. As Gretchen Rubin says, avoid the ambiguity and overwhelmingness of "passion," and instead ask yourself what you like doing on a Saturday afternoon with nothing to do.

I wonder if there's a parallel in the writing world with all the advice around voice: Find your voice, write in your own voice, the best writing has a distinctive voice, etc.

In Louis Menand's piece on teaching the craft of creative writing, he notes:

"Show, don’t tell," which was the mantra in the nineteen-forties and fifties, to the effectively opposite mantra “Find your voice,” which took over in the nineteen-sixties and seventies.

In this informative Q&A with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux president Jonathan Galassi, he says:

All of these [great] books are different in terms of their angles of attack, but they're all very strong voices. And they don't sound like anyone else. I think the voice is the most important thing—and then the shape. … Voice is one way of looking at it but aliveness is another way. And I think voice is kind of being killed in a lot of writing today.

As with careers and passion, I don't disagree with the fundamental point here, but I do worry about the intensity with which this advice is dispensed to aspiring writers. How, exactly, are you supposed to improve the "voice" of your writing? How do you know whether the sound of the words on the page are most true to you? What is "aliveness" and can not writing have bounce in its step but still lack a singular voice that would be familiar if you heard it again? How does "find your voice" square with advice to "imitate the best"? How, exactly, are you supposed to synthesize the best of other writers you are imitating — and how do you know whether your synthesis is your own voice finally or just a pale collection of imitative gimmicks, smashed together?

Perhaps all this self-consciousness about "voice" is a good thing, but perhaps, as the questions above illustrate, it's needlessly inducing stress, and distracting from other, better focus points of writers (namely doing the thing — actually writing and putting faith in the process of constant revision).

Jesse Berrett, with whom I email about writing issues, once told me that there's hope for all of us to better approximate that voice we hear in our heads. I like the attitude built-in to this statement. "A hope for all of us" rightly highlights that approximating the voice in our heads into words is an on-going project for everyone at every stage. It is a process of continual arrival.

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One suggestion oft-offered to writers in search of their "voice," especially those who produce prose that tries too hard or unintentionally comes off as pretentious, is to "write like you talk." Write like you were talking to a smart person across the table from you at dinner. I was intrigued, then, to see this snippet in Benjamin Kunkel's appreciation of David Foster Wallace:

Speaking for myself, I realized, while writing my first novel, that relaxed diction could be a tremendous strain and artifice. Afterwards I understood that I wrote more naturally and honestly when more formally.

That writing formally could be more natural is somewhat counter to conventional wisdom. Regardless of what's natural, it's definitely the case that writing like you talk — writing informally, writing conversationally — is much harder than writing formally. (That's why hacks like me tend to veer formal.) As Jesse put it to me, real life conversation contains banalities and tics that are annoying when in print, so the informal writer must eliminate those without eliminating the charm and accessibility he sought in the first place.

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From the Galassi interview, there's this wisdom:

Most words put down on paper are not interesting, or don't make sense, or are stilted. You can tell within two pages that something is not going to work….Only a few people in the world are meant to be writers.

The idea is that the people who should write are the people who can't not write. I think there are a lot of people who want to write, and who want to say something, but a lot of them don't have anything to say.

The "can't not do X" is a good formulation for most people who excel at their work. Orhan Pamuk sounded a similar note on why he writes.

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Here are five writing exercises, via Menand:

  • Take a simple event: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. . . . Describe this event, using the same characters and elements of setting, in five completely different ways.
  • Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.
  • Describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention the bird.
  • Using all you know, write a short story about an animal—for instance, a cow.

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