Fresh out of college and in my first job as a reporter, I took my role and my writing as a journalist very seriously. I spent hours doing an expose’ of the local county jail (the sheriff’s cooperation, I discovered later, was an attempt to get more money for his building project); I took copious notes at county commissioners meetings (while the commissioners bickered politics among themselves); and I wrote detailed analyses of the guest speakers at the local college, hoping to unveil the finer points of academia to my small town readers.
But the problem was, nobody ever mentioned those stories, or the hundreds like them when they would discuss my work at the paper. What caught their attention was the story I did on an eagle reintroduction program at a local park or the rescue diving practice by a nearby fire department. Or my most talked about story, the one a stranger actually quoted back to me at a wedding upon our introduction, was a story about a family who accidentally killed four cats trying to find one their son could show at the county fair.
Though my ambition told me that the local governmental and political stories would help me make a name for myself, it was the stories that had heart, that I actually cared about, that people remembered me for. And it was in the middle of this real writing that I started to find my voice.
According to Julia Cameron in The Right to Write, the voice of a writer is the sound her heart makes when it is doing the writing rather than her head.
A writing voice is not a collection of ticks and tricks. A writing voice is a vehicle for communication. The individuality of a voice emerges not by falling in love with your own facility but by learning to move past it. Too much cleverness gets in the way of real writing and real thought . . . .Writing that is too ‘heady’ cuts us off from the heart.
My readers were the ones who recognized my voice first. As my bylines about Ag Week and Ladies Days accumulated, more and more readers began saying to me, “you write just like a normal person.” I wasn’t sure whether or not this was a compliment. And my fresh-out-of-college self would actually have much rather impressed them with my vocabulary or sentence structure.
It wasn’t until a few of years later, long after my journalism career had fizzled over too many commissioner meetings and ambulance chases, that I also started recognizing my own writer’s voice. I was a graduate student crossing over from the Journalism world into the English department, and the transition was brutal. I could no sooner write a literary analysis of a poem than I could sheer a sheep (though I did write about that for Ag Week).
But I liked to learn, and so each time my professor would return a paper with suggestions, I would rewrite it. My hybrid academic/journalistic style always surprised (if not annoyed) him, but he was willing to guide me. And he did not make me get rid of it altogether. And though most of my papers were in response to academic articles and research, I often used personal examples from my life to make my point. Another “no, no” in academia. My professor apparently found it refreshing. He let them go.
By the end of the class, I had rewritten every paper at least three times, but I received an “A.” I also received the best gift my professor could have given me: the suggestion to quit graduate school and be a writer.
It took a few more years of playing in academia, working through the regret of leaving journalism, and finding a writing life that would allow me to continue eating, but those small town readers and that patient professor put me on the path of eventually finding my voice by taking time to really listen to it.
Cameron comments on this significance others play in helping writers find their voice.
Sometimes we do not know we have a writing voice because there has never been anyone to listen. When we begin to listen to ourselves, the inner voice grows stronger. Soon others can hear it as well and a circle of support can start to grow.
I don’t have the perfect pitch of my writer’s voice yet; I often revert to an overly academic analysis or the journalistic inverted pyramid and find the words stale and uninteresting. I also have not completely rid myself of the fresh-graduate approach that likes impressive sentences and big words.
But more and more, my heart says what’s on its mind, and the voice it uses sounds more and more like me.
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