Find your own voice


Silk’s Post #118 — Watching the 2015 Grammy Awards last night, I was struck by the parallels between writing stories and writing songs. That shouldn’t be a surprise, considering they share a lot of DNA as different forms of oral tradition. The abbreviated Wikipedia definition:

Oral tradition is cultural material transmitted vocally from one generation to another in speech or song, and may take the form of folktales, sayings, ballads, songs or chants.

Even though the music industry and the book industry have each evolved in their own directions, based on the technologies that facilitate them (printing for books, recording for music), much of the creative process behind stories and songs is still analogous. The modern irony is that the Internet – that marketplace of all things creative, from visuals to sounds to words – is now bringing these two oral traditions back together, and delivering both stories and songs to the global village in the cyberspace equivalent of the town square.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.

I could make a long list of song/story parallels: both involve writing, both express emotions, both have a narrative and a structure and a rhythm, etc. But, for me, the most intriguing shared quality is the one that’s perhaps the most difficult to define: voice.

In songs, the artist’s voice is expressed through actual sound.

In stories, the voice is silent.

Or is it?

I can’t be the only reader who “hears” a book’s voice in my head, just as though the storyteller were speaking, dramatizing the story. (I think that’s one reason rhythm is so important in writing.)

The Grammies this year was light on chatter, and gloriously rich in performances of every description. The variations in voice, genre and style were stunning, from smooth to bouncy to soulful to raucous to folksy to inspiring – with a touch of avant garde sprinkled in. But among this year’s diverse cream of the crop, one thing stood out as a common factor: authenticity. Love ’em or hate ’em, every voice there was an original.

It was the evening’s big winner, 22-year-old British singer-songwriter Sam Smith, who brought the importance of voice into focus for me with a seemingly offhand comment after receiving one of his 4 Grammies. In reality, it was anything but offhand. I think it was Sam’s secret weapon.

“Smith, who [won for best new artist, song of the year for ‘Stay With Me’, and pop vocal album of the year for ‘The Lonely Hour’] revealed that he only found success in music once he found his own voice.

“‘I just want to say that before I made this record, I was doing everything to try to get my music heard,’ said Smith.

“‘I tried to lose weight and I was making awful music. It was when I started to be myself that the music flowed,’ he told the crowd.”   — CBC News report

I can relate to this on so many levels. The big take-away, though, is that we can only be authentic and original, and truly develop our creative talents, when we “start to be ourselves.”

Copycats can’t find their own voices. Artists – whether they’re musicians, painters, or writers – who constrict their creativity by trying to fit into a mould can’t find their own voices. Writers who get hung up on “how-to” formulas can’t find their own voices. And artists who give priority to marketing over creativity? Well, they probably can’t find their own voices because they aren’t even looking.

Voice is something that has to flow naturally.

It can’t be “built” through some step-by-step process, or crafted by following some sort of stylistic rules. You can try to mimic another author’s voice, but it will always be a second language to you. As Sam Smith discovered, his music only began to flow when he started being himself – when he found his own voice.

Sam’s is a bit of a Cinderella story, including some tough hurdles he had to overcome before he became today’s “overnight success”. And while his voice may be unique, his career story is not. Isn’t that the dream of every unpublished writer who’s pounding away in the literary trenches? We all fantasize about a meteoric rise from anonymity to fame, from obscurity to critical acclaim.

If there’s a secret to making that happen, maybe – just maybe – that secret is voice. My thought of the day is this:

Discipline and hard work are the brute necessities of writing. You can’t get there without them. But they’re not enough.

Inspiration and theme are essential. But they’re not enough.

Narrative skills and technique are musts. But they’re not enough.

A feel for characters is certainly needed. But it’s not enough.

Sheer writing talent and a way with words have to be there. But they’re not enough.

However, when you add the magic ingredient of voice – that ethereal quality that infuses writing with originality, with heart, with life – you have at least the beginnings of “enough”.

Your voice already exists. It’s inside you, so looking for it elsewhere is bound to fail.

Find it and let it flow.


3 thoughts on “Find your own voice

  1. Words of wisdom. Or I should say, pearls. So true about that magic ingredient that nothing else can replace. Learning about writing can get you a long way, but even at its best and most intense it won’t be able to give it to you if it’s lacking. Reading too can improve one’s writing, but for a story or book to be truly great, a writer has to infuse it with that breath of life, his or her own voice. Thanks for your insightful – and inspirational – post, Silk.

  2. Great post Silk! I think we are all coming to the realization that our individual voice is what we need to unharness and let loose! I look forward to hearing yours!

  3. May I diverge slightly from Karalee by saying “Yet another great post, Silk.” This was not one that I learned something new from, but one that gave me needed encouragement at a propitious moment. You’ve provided me with several of both kinds, informative and encouraging.

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