Literary critics and regular readers often have things to say about a writer’s voice. Many think that the most-read writers are those whose voice is so clear that it can be singled out from all the other authorial voices. Hemingway, with his hard-edged nouns and verbs, is often said to have a powerful voice. Katherine Anne Porter’s authorial voice might be described as precise, incisive, and aware. Joy Williams’s voice is somewhat quirky, but — as we say — in a serious way. Peter Balakian’s voice is strong and exhilarating. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s voice carries a certain wistfulness and a sense of regret. Thomas Hardy’s novels project compassion and sorrow; yes, a sorrowful voice. Jane Austen’s voice is crisp and witty. The voice of George Eliot, née Mary Anne Evans, the author of Middlemarch, often said to be the most intelligent book ever written, is psychologically acute and hard-nosed and definitive.
By the time young writers are in an MFA program, they have learned to characterize voices and wonder what kind of voices they have. Alas, they may as yet have none, because a voice develops over time, not all at once. It is useless to think, Well, I like that voice and I’m going to use it. Your voice, the voice that will develop, may not adhere to the voice you admire. There is a reason for this: Voices are determined by vision. Every person has a different vision, although it may be more, or less, like someone else’s vision. So the next question is: What do we mean by vision?
You know, of course, that we are not discussing how well you see. This is not about glasses. It is about the world. The whole complicated, intermixed, uncontrollable, diverse, raging or contented, exhilarating or flattening, lovely or ugly ball of wax. And the world changes. And so do you, which means your view of it, your vision, changes slightly over time, but not drastically, because you are, and remain, you. It’s similar to ageing. Beginning, you are a child; then you reach and, I hope, survive the adolescent years. Finally, you reach maturity.
But maturity has its own ups and downs, its good times and bad. All kinds of information — not simply a teacher’s information — comes at you and you must sort it out. You get a job, lose it, and find another. You marry and have kids to care for. Or maybe you don’t marry. You choose another path, to live alone perhaps, or to find a partner who is not your spouse. These changes also change the way you look at things. Maybe they make you happy. Maybe you think you have made a mistake. Maybe your child dies, which is pretty much the worst thing that can happen. But no, maybe things are worse. Maybe you go to Vietnam to “win” the war. Maybe you are horrified by Syria under Assad. Maybe you put politics out of your mind and limit your life to your garden, bringing flowers and vegetables to fruition. There are all kinds of things you can do. You can look, feel, taste, hear, and smell, or you can do at least some of these things. You can move or you can stay in place. You can go to your mother’s funeral or you can choose not to. You can go to college or to work. You can go to graduate school or go to work. You can teach, tinker, throw, titillate, transport, or work yourself into a tizzy.
The point is that sometimes we are the initiator and sometimes we are the initiated. Either way, a change takes place, and whether we like it or not, a change will occur in you. It may be a change so minute, so slight, that you do not even recognize the change. Or it may be a change so turbulent that you are forced to recognize it. Probably many changes are in between these two extremes; in any case, there is a change, and consciously or unconsciously we absorb it the way a tree absorbs groundwater.
So how do we see the world?
We can see it as a place of beauty. We can see it as disheartening. Some people view the world positively, some view it negatively. Some people believe in a God. Some don’t. Some people are wizards of technology and others want to bash their heads into a computer that refuses to comply with their requests. (That would be me.)
In general, optimistic people live longer than pessimists, which, as a pessimist, I resent, because why should one have to be optimistic? Especially since pessimism is more accurate than optimism.
What I hope you will do now is lie on a bed or couch or sit at your computer to think about your vision of the world. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? What is your attitude toward the current president? What are you looking forward to? What do you hope will not happen?
Do you prefer crowds to solitude, or vice versa? Which activities, people, pets, corporations, technologists, scientists, artists, musicians, books do you prefer or dislike? In other words, try to figure out what you are as a person. Of course, the day after you do this, you may find you do not wish to be who you are. The French say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Self-ness is difficult to hold onto; it may speed right past us, making us think that we have no control over who we are, but of course, we do have a fair amount of control. T. S. Eliot said, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” that “[i]n the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo,” and while he may have said it simply to convey an atmosphere of low-brow women seeking status by entering an art museum, it also suggests something like vertigo, the women wishing they were sophisticated and knowledgeable but in reality not so sophisticated, acquiring their ideas from one another and not by the pursuit of art itself. Maybe I am reading too much into this couplet, but it makes me feel slightly dizzy, slightly sick. The ambient women could be buying groceries, taking them out to the car, putting them in the boot, and returning for one more glance at Michelangelo or any other objet d’art. That dizziness is not unrelated to our sense of self. We become someone different when we change our clothes, the furniture in our houses, and for sure when we change our minds.
So now the question is: How do we develop a vision of the world?
Your natural inclinations take you part way, but not all the way. Read. If possible, travel. Converse with people you do not know, and listen to what they say. (You may encounter useful and interesting accents as well as different points of view.) And you must constantly review and assess your ideas. Happily, doing this is not boring. It is not dull. People enliven people. Your conversations will inform your voice. Your vision of the world will take in more and more — data, I guess I’ll say. And your mind will tell you what aspects of your world vision most attract you and determine what you do.
Think of the authors mentioned in this essay. Are you more attracted to Chekhov or Dostoyevsky? They are contrasting figures. Both are great writers, and both are therefore admirable, but which of the two seems more sympathetic to you? This does not mean you should try to imitate their voices (although imitating other writers’ work can be an instructive experiment). What about Michael Chabon and Jerome Charyn? Do you prefer Cynthia Ozick or Grace Paley? Your reading, which may be wonderfully promiscuous in your earlier years, will eventually tell you what you most enjoy reading, and you’ll find yourself selecting books according to your special interests. (But don’t stop reading widely; you may discover new books that supplement or increase your interests.)
At some point, you write a book. I wish I’d followed the advice Charles Johnson presents in his book The Way of the Writer, but his book came out only recently. He suggests that anyone wanting to be a writer should begin by writing six novels before writing a seventh, the one you will submit to editors or agents. It’s good advice. On the other hand, it requires energy and perseverance. Maybe we can just say throw out your first novel, unless you have complete confidence in its quality.
Now, as to finding your voice, here is some illumination from the late poet Philip Levine, who was at first a working man. It applies to both poets and fiction writers:
I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life — or at least the part my work played in it — I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life. •