I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.
“I can’t understand a story without understanding its sound. That, for me, is the glory of writing.”—Chang Rae-Lee
A few months ago I wrote a two-part column where in Part 1 I took the long view as far as my topic—managing the interface between a prose writer and reader—and in Part 2 I took the short view at a range of smaller, up-close factors that can make or break the relationship your work has with a reader. Part 2 is a bit of a grab-bag, and in it I talk about everything from rhythm to punctuation. And the last sentences touch on the concept of “voice,” as you see here:
“And especially when revising, the more you can manage the interface between your work and your reader, the more they’ll undergo a distinct and unique experience from your work. The choices you make, over rounds of revision, gives your final work a feeling and sound as uniquely “you” as your fingerprint. And that’s your voice.”
And honestly, though what I say is true, the opposite is also true (as is so often the case in the creation of art). Frankly, I’m a little surprised no one called me out on defining voice so concretely, because surely there must be more to voice than that. In truth, there is (and there isn’t), and it’s been bugging me that I summed it up so simply. Because no discussion of the creation of art can be simple, and at the same time, accurate.
So let’s do a deeper dive into that elusive term, “voice,” beyond the technical manipulation of words on a page.
Voice is something that comes up over and over when I’m dealing with clients, especially new ones who’ve heard accomplished writers at podiums proclaim the necessity of “voice” for writers. “How do I find my voice?” these clients ask. Well, it’s not as cut and dried as that, as if you stumble across it one day and then it suddenly “exists.” Still, when you, as a reader, come across “voice,” you know it. I’m going to jump to jazz to illustrate this, as changing forms often helps clarifies ideas, and compare two different and essential jazz pianists, Thelonius Monk and Bill Evans.
One reason I’m comparing pianists is that particular instrument puts guard rails on individual expression because of its 88 keys, the specific tone and logical layout of those keys, and the weight and lack of flexibility of the instrument. For the most part, whatever you do, a piano sounds like a piano. It doesn’t bend to the gestures of wind players, such as sax players like John Coltrane or trumpeters like Miles Davis (both of whom are recognizable almost upon their first note), or even more so, jazz vocalists, whose instrument is, literally, the voice and its enormous range of expression and possibilities (for about the clearest example I can think of, compare jazz giants Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, who were contemporaries, and how their “voices” differ). Though a piano limits individual expression much more than a human voice, Thelonius Monk is so distinctive I can usually spot his playing within a measure. He bangs on the piano, inserts unexpected spaces in the melody line, combines atypical notes for atonal results, and even purposely uses “poorly tuned” pianos for effect. From him, the piano can feel almost like a percussion instrument. Bill Evans, on the other hand, has a classical background, and where Monk is focused on rhythm and sometimes “off notes,” Evans is focused on harmonics. And though Evans is my favorite pianist and I know his music better than any other, I can still be fooled sometimes, wondering if what I’m hearing is him or just someone influenced by him. He’s more of a shapeshifter, whether it’s supporting Tony Bennett with breathtaking minimalism in their legendary duo album, The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, laying a bed of harmonic threads under Miles Davis’s groundbreaking album, Kind of Blue, or even pulling in some Monk influence when performing Monk’s classic, “Round Midnight.” Monk is always, almost aggressively Monk, and Evans, though he’s as distinct as anyone, ranges. And that’s part of his voice too, because there’s always that layer of melodics underneath you don’t even notice unless you’re a jazz geek that, as much as anything, *is* his signature.
Likewise, when I read a paragraph from Cormac McCarthy or Hemingway, it’s instantly recognizable. Marilynn Robinson, on the other hand, does more shapeshifting. Her book Housekeeping, which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, follows two sisters who are raised by a succession of relatives until their transient aunt, who may be a degree insane, comes to take care of them. Its plot is fairly traditional. Yet Robinson is probably as well known for Gilead, which is an epistolary novel created from of a series of documents gathered and written by a Congregationalist pastor. The comparative styles of the books, surface wise, are quite different. And yet, and of course, beneath these two very different books lies Robinson’s distinct and personal depth of knowledge of language and the specific gestures only she would make with it, like chords beneath a melody. But what also connects these two books of hers, more than any overt style, is her very unique concerns about spirituality and mystery, a driving aspect that clearly needs to find its way out of her heart, in whatever way it can, and into the world. That is at the core of who she is. And guess what? That need and its expression is voice too, absolutely.
What personally concerns you at your core, beyond what you “think” or “believe” (nothing’s more off-putting than a writer who uses their art to try and force an agenda on their readers), what comes out of your pen when the words are going, what thoughts are leading you as much as you are leading them (on those especially good days)—these needs and fears and desires and obsessions and impulses that push you to write even though this is damn hard work and nobody may even publish it, are all part of your voice too. Because part of being a writer is having something to say, even if you don’t understand where it comes from or even exactly what it means, only that when you combine the best of your inspiration and the best of your craft, sometimes the words come out in a particular way you could not have designed beforehand, and you see some part of yourself on the page that surprises you, something unique, that maybe you only suspected existed if you suspected it existed at all. Yet there it is, because you both served your craft and followed where your heart and imagination led you. A fingerprint. A shadow. A voice. Something that is from you, and beyond you.