MFA Nugget: Finding Your Creative Writing Voice(s)

MONTPELIER, VT: “In a creative writing project, voice is everything.” So said Sue William Silverman at a lecture here at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing summer residency. Sue, an accomplished memoirist and longtime VCFA instructor, was joined in the lecture–titled “Containing Multitudes: Shifting Voices in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction”–by fellow VCFA instructors and skilled writers Connie May Fowler and Robert Vivian.

Robert Vivian

Robert Vivian

If voice truly is everything in writing, how do we find our voice? Well, Sue said, start by realizing that’s the wrong question. As a beginning writer, Sue said she was constantly told to “find her voice,” as if “I had lost it, perhaps under the sofa… There is no such thing as a voice.” The title of the lecture “Containing Multitudes” borrows from Walt Whitman’s proclamation in “Song of Myself” of his multitudes of being.

So what takeaways did I learn about our creative writing voices? Let me list a few below.

  • A work’s voice is all about trust. Robert said that a writer needs to trust that the right voice will emerge, so it is essentially “self-trust.” When a writer truly trusts herself, the voice will come, and with ease. He said we could learn from Robert Keats, who wrote “If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.”
  • It’s all about hearing. Ernest Hemingway, Robert said, would hear his way through a story. Robert himself reads his fiction and essays to his wife, so he can hear it aloud as shared with another. When it sounds right, it likely is the right voice.
  • The story chooses the voice. Connie said that when reading we should study closely the opening lines of our favorite prose. It is in those first few lines that the writer establishes the voice that will carry you through the work.
  • Connie May Fowler

    Connie May Fowler

    Word choice matters. Sue’s first memoir was from the perspective of an abused child. Her second was that of a sex addict resisting recovery. Her memoir due out next year, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo Saxon Jew, has an ironic voice of a “Jewish narrator who is stalking Christianity.” Read your words aloud, Sue said. A harsh word said by the sex addict wouldn’t be know to her child narrator and likely would be too dark for her ironic narrator.

  • Voice can evolve within a work. It is challenging, Connie said, but a narrator’s voice can progress as the narrator herself progresses. This can be true in a memoir that covers a span from childhood to adulthood, for example. Ultimately the voice should be true to where the narrator is at that moment in space and time.
  • Don’t overlook the revision process. The word “revision” is essentially a “re-vision,” seeing your work anew. But perhaps, he said, it should be “re-hearing,” for it’s in the listening to our own words that we can hear where the voice isn’t true.

I have a lot to process from this remarkably insightful lecture that, unfortunately, only lasted an hour. But I think what speaks to me most is the Keats quote Robert cited in discussing self-trust.

Sue William Silverman

Sue William Silverman

The essay I wrote to have workshopped here at my final MFA residency did not start out coming naturally as a leaf to a tree. My first draft stalled after 8 pages, and when I read those pages I was bored; not a good sign. The second one never got past a page. I just kept staring at the screen. Then I asked my subconscious ghostwriter to help me one night as I went to sleep. The next morning what came to me was not a subject for an essay, but a voice, one that was a bit nasty and cranky. I sat down to let that bitter crank rant, and the next thing I knew I had more than twenty pages of prose. It turned out that the crankiness was a mask for the narrator’s aching insecurity. I submitted the essay knowing that the leaf had adhered to the tree.

What has been your experience in finding the right voice for your work? Do you go in with a sense of the voice in mind? Or does it emerge organically as you write? Have you attempted to have a voice evolve over the course of a story?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

11 Responses to “MFA Nugget: Finding Your Creative Writing Voice(s)”

  1. Beautifully written and inspiring🙂

  2. I don’t know if it’s because I’m an actor who writes, but I see the movie in my head and write it down. If a new character appears that I hadn’t thought of, I interview them. “Who are you? Why are you here?” Maybe it’s because I was a features editor interviewing people a while back, but they always tell me. That way I see and hear things in each character’s voice. Saves a lot of time🙂

  3. Unhappy with a novel I was writing In the first-person past-tense, I rewrote it in third-person present-tense… and the voice changed exactly to my liking. Currently, in another project, a partial memoir, this question of voice has been plaguing me for months. I keep writing new intros hoping I’ll find the voice, the key, and that will take care of everything. Just yesterday, I fell into some dialogue, actually dramatizing what I’d been trying to pontificate about, and it feels so good that just maybe… my fingers are crossed… that this will establish the right tone… and away we’ll go. Anyway… critical consideration, this “voice” thing. And happy residenting, Patrick!

  4. @patinspire Thanks!

    @cythiamc1 That’s fantastic! Connie talked about a novel she wrote where the voices of the characters rang true; it was because she channeled people she had heard speaking growing up, and “heard” them in her characters when she wrote the novel.

    @pjreece Great to have you back for more nuggets! Kudos on fixing that novel; an interesting choice, third-person present. And kudos for understanding the importance of voice in memoir; I think a lot of people who haven’t focused on that genre assume you can’t have multiple voices when it’s “you,” even though (as the instructors pointed out) there is a multiplicity of “us.”

  5. I love this blog post. Since I took a hiatus (sort of) from writing fiction to get stuck into a few non-fiction projects, I have found this issue of “voice” to be a major stumbling block. I agree with your first two bullets: we really do have to trust that the voice will come, and this is a very organic, karmic, almost spooky kind of process. For me, it comes often in my sleep or immediately upon waking up. Of course, when it comes, it’s so exciting and precious because it drives the entire piece. Find –or channeling–the voice is really the biggest hurdle.
    Wonderful post with some excellent wisdom in here.

    • Hi Aine,

      Interesting you put it that way, about coming from sleep or immediately upon waking. As I mention that is a method of mine, or I should say my subconscious. Kudos for seizing on it when it strikes!

  6. charlotterainsdixon Reply July 4, 2013 at 10:43 am

    I will be honest–I have been known to struggle with voice. In my novel, my main character’s voice came out totally naturally, as in, she demanded that I put her words on the page. And she has, um, a unique voice. But that experience may have spoiled me a bit, because I keep waiting for it to happen again. Instead, I’m back to utilizing some of the techniques you mention here, mainly trust–realizing that my protagonist’s voice will come out as I write.

    • I would agree, Charlotte, that the protagonist in your novel had a very strong voice. I suspect you must have known someone like her, or perhaps even harbored a secret version of her in yourself. Perhaps, like Connie and Robert say, you are hearing someone in your present or past who will spark the voice of that next character for you.

      Happy to have you here again, by the way! (And did you know Connie when she was at Spalding?)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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