What happened to my voice?
My English class had just read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and I remember thinking, “I love the way she writes.”
So, when our teacher assigned us a personal essay that Friday, I saw an opportunity to practice my voice. I ran home, to my cozy corner, and spent the weekend writing, furiously attempting to capture that unexplained thing I loved so much about The Joy Luck Club. When it was ready, I strode into the classroom with my nose up in the air and held the paper up in front of my teacher for inspection. I was sure he was going to love it!
Mr. Rav (let’s call him Mr. Rav) reminded me of Santa Clause. He rubbed his bulging belly before running a hand over his white beard. He took the paper I waved in front of his face, adjusted his glasses and read. There were a few minutes of silence, only interrupted by the randoms “umm.”
“I see that the book inspired you,” he said finally. He smiled and his small lips made an appearance. “You tried to take on her voice.”
What? I could have sworn I had written something purely mine, something unique. Noticing the look of confusion on my face, he signaled for me to follow him. He pulled three worn paperbacks from the classroom’s bookshelf: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. These were the standard high school readings, and these were also distinctive and unique in every way.
“You should read all of these,” he said before explaining the differences in tone and style of each writer. The thing that made those authors’ words shine through was their voice (and their control on the tone and pacing).
Sandra Cisneros’ voice in The House of Mango Street is autobiographical (with a nostalgic tone at times):
“But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring” (2.2).
Jane Austen’s voice is usually authorial:
“They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills;—and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance.”
I was familiar with concept of voice, but I didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be to find my own. The book list kept growing over the following months. The more I read, the more intrigued I became. I had not said anything to my teacher about how much I liked the book or how much I enjoyed the author’s style. However, my teacher’s assessment was dead on. Amy Tan’s book inspired me, and I tried to copy Amy Tan’s voice. Suddenly, my success in adapting another author’s voice became the sign of doing a bad job as a writer.
Many believe that writing is like the art of painting. At first, you (as a writer) might end up copying from others, the people we admire. The more we write then the more we learn.
Finding one’s voice might take time, effort, persistence, and bravery. Seven years later, I’m still working hard to develop my voice and gain more confidence in my writing. My friends tell me that my voice seems to be at its best when I write personal essays, which makes sense. When I write personal essays, I recall memories. I love writing fiction, but I tend to question my ideas often. Fear and doubt are the sources of my writer’s block (and perhaps are what stifle my voice).
How do we develop our voice?
In my case, I find places like fanfiction, writing.com, and writingcafe.com. These function as a playground for me to play in, experiment, practice, share, and develop my voice. Reading is also a crucial part of the learning process, of course.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. I’m reposting this post from my old blog.