A few years ago, it might have been more than a few, time is a bit waffle-y, I was sitting at a table with some pretty fancy writers and we were talking about teaching. One of them said the class that was the hardest to teach for her was voice. I think she used the word ineffable. I was nodding in hearty agreement. Then at one end of the table, the eldest, most published writer among us said, “Voice is you.” The speaker was Marion Dane Bauer. Does she need an introduction? Author of over one hundred books, winner of many awards, she speaks with the quiet midwestern authority. Nothing flashy. Just boom. “Voice is you.”
I remember turning to her, sort of aghast, and saying very inarticulately, “What?”
“Voice is you. You are the author of the book. The book’s voice comes from the author. Voice is what you are trying to say with this particular story.” I am paraphrasing here but what was stunning to me was that I had worked very hard, first as a playwright and then as a journalist to keep my voice out of what I wrote. The characters on stage weren’t me. The people in the articles I quoted weren’t me. I had worked very hard to remove my voice from the page and now a very sage woman was telling me that voice in novels was me and putting my voice in novels was essential to making it distinctive.
Clearly, I had some learning to do.
One of the marvels of writing and being a writer is that even though you are wielding the story on to the page, the story is teaching you. Every time. It is also why we go to workshops and listen to other writers talk about writing and learn how they actually wrote the story. One of the best teachers for voice is Patti Lee Gauch. The way she teaches it is by going to the pages of books she loves and breaking down the voice. Line by line. “This is the character’s voice. This is the author’s voice. Do you see how they are different? Do you see how they can live together in the same paragraph? Do you see how they work together to make the story deeper?” It is a wonder to watch her underline the distinction. And it is very hard to do.
Patti read a few chapters of my latest novel which was written in close third. She told me I hadn’t committed to the character’s voice. “It isn’t going far enough. It’s getting tangled up in the author’s voice. I understood all the words she was telling me but it wasn’t until I flipped the the manuscript into first person present that I was really able to hear the main character. Really hear her. I’m letting her have the page. When I’m done, I will go back into the page and weave in the narrator voice, aka the author voice, aka the storyteller voice, aka my voice which will work in tandem with the character’s voice.
At least I think that’s the next step in my journey with voice.