Monday, 9 August 2010

The writer's voice (mainly)

Yesterday I happened to hear one of my favourite authors, Tracy Chevalier, on BBC Radio 3. She was the guest on a programme called Private Passions, which is a bit similar to Desert Island Discs. A famous person discusses their life, and chooses a selection of music that has been significant to them in some way.

I learnt a lot about Tracy Chevalier during the show. She spoke about her most recent novel, Remarkable Creatures, based on the true story of fossil hunter Mary Anning. Tracy compared the process of hunting for fossils to that of writing - slowing yourself down into the right mental state, until you can pick out the things you are searching for. I also learnt that Tracy played clarinet from the age of eight, back home in Washington where she grew up. For a time she was even a member of the D.C Youth Orchestra. The thing I found most interesting was that she described how, in almost every novel she writes, she has a female character with a "woody, clear, straightforward sound", like a clarinet. This 'clarinet character' is always the one most like Tracy herself - the one whose voice is most akin to her own.

Tracy's musical choices played during the programme included Schubert, Brahms, Bernstein, and Talking Heads. If you want to hear the programme in full, it is available on the BBC iPlayer until next Sunday morning at - there are a few moments of talking before it actually starts, but just let it run and you will find yourself at the correct place. If you are outside the U.K I'm unsure whether this link will work, but I think there is still some process that does allow you to listen. It's well worth investigating!

By coincidence, soon after hearing this programme, I read an excellent blog post called How Writers Found Their Voice: Real Examples, by Margo Berendsen at Writing at High Altitude. I won't try to summarise it, as Margo has already covered the subject so well that you're better off reading it for yourself. There are lots of links to other writers' ideas about what voice is and what we can do to develop it.

My own opinion is that we only find our voice by writing lots. The more we write, the closer we get to arriving at that distinctive feel that makes our work our own. As I commented on Margo's blog, the stories that do well for me are usually the ones that I write totally as myself - not aiming to please or impress. Often they are also the ones most rooted in my own memories, or in my experience of working in mental health. Voice is such an elusive thing, and hard to define, but sometimes I know I am getting near to it even if I am not quite there yet. For me, discovering that voice is one of the joys of writing.


Ellie said...

I read Margo's brilliant post, Jo. I highly recommend it to anyone reading this post. You'll learn a lot.

I agree that finding our voice comes only through lots of writing. Having been writing for about 18 months now, I'm only just starting to find it! I've got a long way to go, I think.

Old Kitty said...

Oooh I can play that link on iplayer! Will listen to it over the weekend - thanks for this!

Yes, I read Margo's very thoughtful piece about voice. It really is something organic that develops over time and practice. I guess for me the main thing is to feel confident and comfortable enough with whatever voice I find as I write.

Take care

Joanna said...

Thank you, Joanne. I shall definitely listen to this. I was reminded of Stephen King's book, On Writing, in which he says that stories are like fossils. They already exist, intact and perfect, but are often buried deeply and need writers to unearth them. The important thing is to excavate them carefully and gently in order to preserve their shape and uniqueness. Then, by slowly removing the layers of sand and earth obscuring their beauty, they will reveal their shape to you. I think it helps me to feel that the story is waiting for me to find it and is whole. It is up to me to make the discovery and, when it works well,there is no greater satisfaction.

I agree that our voice is vital. I can feel mine developing and growing in confidence, but only because I never stop writing. I am scared of taking a break, because only the act of writing reveals that voice. And is is such a privilege to hear it and never ceases to bring that joy.

Karen said...

You're so right about voice. It's only when I stopped worrying about how I was 'supposed' to be writing that I felt my own voice came through.

Agree too that the stories that come the most naturally and deeply felt are the ones that tend to do well.

Interesting post :o)

Joanne Fox said...

Ellie, I think you're doing really well for someone who's only been writing 18 months.

Kitty, I think you are spot on about finding the voice as you write. It only comes out of that process.

Joanna, I do remember that bit in the Stephen King book. Yes, I agree that it is helpful to think of the story already existing and our job is to delve deep enough to uncover it.

Karen, when we begin writing a lot of us probably think there is a proper way to do it. Sometimes what's needed is the courage to tell the story that is in you.

Margo Berendsen said...

Hey, thanks for mentioning my post! I loved the comparison to uncovering fossils. I never thought of it that way before, but it is a beautiful (and hopeful!) picture.

Talli Roland said...

What a great post. It's a funny thing, voice. I love how Chevalier described hers.

Joanne Fox said...

Margo, your post was fantastic and it really made me think.

Talli, I like that idea about the clarinet voice too. It's interesting how we come to define ourselves isn't it?

HelenMHunt said...

Voice is so important isn't it? And hard to pin down and get right.