How A Writer’s Voice Is Like A Great Bottle of Wine (At Least I Think It Is; I Don’t Know Much About Wine)
I know almost nothing about wine. I know that it comes from grapes. I know Merlot is red and Zinfandel is white. I know that if you’re in a restaurant and you want to drink wine with your meal, that asking the waiter what he recommends is a great place to start. I know that if my eyes water after I sip the wine, that it’s probably too oaky.
And I also know, that the complexities of a wine’s taste come from a variety of sources — the grapes, the climate of the vineyard, the types of barrels it was stored in, the chemical composition of the soil, and the techniques of the winemaker. Wine is complicated and the artistry of good wine is probably lost on me, but I enjoy it anyway because it’s civilized and it tastes good and when I drink it, I feel like I know what I’m doing.
I think that a writer’s voice is like good wine.
Like wine, a writer’s voice is a complex creation influenced by a lot of different things. The best writers, like the best wine, have spent time developing their essence into something distinctive. The best writers, like the best wine, need to be savored and enjoyed and appreciated for their uniqueness. I also think that writers who take the time to develop their voice are not unlike the winemaker who tinkers with all the factors that make his wine stand out from others.
It is voice, I would like to argue, that carries the most artistic weight of our storytelling. All of my kids could re-tell me the story of the Three Bears, but they would all do it differently. (One of them, I assure you, would be far louder than the rest.) The differences between my five children’s interpretations has a lot to their talent, skills and their personality. If I were to pick the best version (and naturally I wouldn’t because I’m a perfect mother and I never, ever use competition to motivate my kids) I would imagine that I would choose one over the others because of their style, their specific choices, their mood and their talent all mixed up together. This is voice.
Literary agent Chip MacGregor said that the thing that he looks for most in new writers is an original voice. But it is kind of mysterious as to how to get one. Some of our writing skills are technical, you know, with all the grammar and spelling and whatnot, but voice isn’t something that can be taught or learned from in a class. You can go to a conference and learn the newest marketing tricks, but you can’t go to one and come back with a spectacular voice.
So how does our voice develop? Like wine, I say we tinker with the influences. Like the winemaker, I say that to develop voice, you need to nurture the right kind of environmental factors. While it sounds rather attractive to sit in a barrel for months and do nothing but write, I think a more practical way to develop voice would be to surround ourselves with rich words. By finding great examples of voice and studying them, savoring them and then recreating them, our voice become more flavorful, distinct and palatable.
-Read non-Western writers. I’m a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant living in the most White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant part of the United States. I have found that leaving my comfort zone literarily (is that a word?) is enlightening, encouraging and adventurous. My suggestions? That Thing Around Your Neck by African writer Chimamanda Adichie, White Tiger by Indian writer Aravind Adiga and Crescent by Middle Eastern writer Diana Abu-Jaber. This was good for me on a lot of levels. It will be good for you too.
-Read avant garde (-ish) works. Okay, I don’t really mean cutting edge literature that can be so creative that it’s annoying, but I am talking about books that are more creative than average. Often these books are hard to categorize, or they’re critics’ favorites, but not necessarily big commercial hits. These are the types of books that I admire not just for their distinct voice but also because of the courage it took to do something different in story-telling. (Kudos to not just the writer, but the publishers who believed in them!) My suggestions? The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, and The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime by Mark Haddon.
-Read 20th Century greats. I almost wrote down read the Classics, but I think for the development of voice, the Classics, (or at least what we think of when we say the Classics) aren’t really helpful. Instead, spend some time getting to know the great literary voices of the 20th century. Flannery O’Connor, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. These writers are a part of our literary heritage for a reason. They worked hard at their distinctive voices and as a result shaped our culture and our literary landscape. I suggest when reading these authors, keep notes, write out great sentences, memorize passages and savor their words. (Flannery O’Connor is like my most favorite writers of all time, and to me, reading her is like eating dinner in the home of a great chef: “I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both.” )
-Read and memorize poetry. But you’re not a poet, you say? Too bad, do it anyway. If you spend time swimming around with good poetry from any time period, you will be playing with metaphor, rhythm, imagery, description, structure and voice in small, bite size packages. Don’t know where to start? Go to PoemHunter.com and sign up for their daily email poem. Then read it. Choose a poet to study — one a month or so –and read it aloud, allowing the words and the rhythms to dance with your tongue and woo your soul. This will, undoubtedly, affect your writing voice. And if you have children, you could make this a family project, to memorize poetry. Our favorites include Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, If by Rudyard Kipling, and anything by Jack Prelutsky, Robert Louis Stevenson, and William Blake.
-WRITE! WRITE! WRITE! And when you’re done, write some more. This is the single most important thing you can do to create your voice. Write letters, write poems, write dialogue, write nonsense, write out overly dramatic complaints about your family, just WRITE! Write quickly, honestly and completely unencumbered by an inner critic. Set a timer and spend ten minutes, at least, daily, putting words down. This is the literary equivalent of practicing your scales and arpeggios if you are a pianist. You MUST write if you are to be a writer and you MUST practice voice if you are going to be unique. You must not self-edit. I strongly believe, and I have some experts to back me up, that we develop our voice through freedom. While you are writing your ten minutes or two pages or whatever it is, y0u must be completely free to express yourself. Your voice is there and it needs practice to come out.
Like wine, good writing is complicated. Like wine, good writing from a distinctive voice, can be a beautiful, toast worthy work of art. So, go out and find your voice, work at it, practice and tell me how it goes!