Entering the YMCA workout room last Monday, a neighbor greeted me cheerily,
“Tom, hi! I’m reading your book. Good stuff! As I read I can hear your voice. You write like you talk.”
I took this as high praise, for after a lifetime of grinding out academic prose, I’m reaching for a more fluid and natural expression. I’m beginning to find my voice for the page. Her comment made me aware, however, that I don’t know very much about the singularity of my speaking voice. I dare say, most people don’t. Acoustically, we hear ourselves uniquely because of the resonance of our skulls, but there is another reason why we miss how we sound to others. Ordinarily we are totally absorbed in our messages, the stories we tell, the arguments we make. Our attention is spent in expression. We have little left for reflexive self-awareness. I must go back to my neighbor and ask her to explain what she meant when she said that I write like I talk. How do I talk? What does she hear that she finds distinctive? If I knew this, it might help me define and refine my writer’s voice.
I’ve read a good deal of advice to writers about finding one’s voice for the page. The usual recommendation is to write, write, and write some more. Eventually, perhaps by a winnowing of whatever does not please in the reading, a winsome voice emerges. But I wonder whether simply writing a lot is the best approach.
If I had been robbed of my voice earlier, I doubt that I could ever have achieved much on the page. I owe a vast debt to Simon Hoggart of the Guardian . . .who about thirty-five years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write “more like the way you talk.” At the time, I was near speechless at the charge of being boring and never thanked him properly, but in time I appreciated that my fear of self-indulgence and the personal pronoun was its own form of indulgence.
To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend… If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.
Hitchens means here, your spoken voice, upon which your writer’s voice must ultimately depend.
I belong to a writers group. Every third week we read aloud, snippets from our scratchings. Of course, it’s helpful for aspiring writer’s to get feedback about what sounds honest, convincing, true to who one is, or not. Lately, I’ve become aware that it would also be helpful to hear from others how I sound in conversation. Do I have a distinctive spoken voice? I’m not talking about acoustic overtones, but something else; I’m not sure what. If I could hear the conversational voice that my neighbor remarked upon, I think I could use it even better on the page.