“Finding Your Voice” as a Writer?

In school classrooms and creative writing courses, apprentice writers are often told they should aim for a distinctive style that expresses their own unique view of the world. Be true to yourself (so the advice goes) and you’ll discover your real “voice.”

I don’t quite agree with that. I’d say you should be cautious about the notion of “finding your voice” as a writer. Yes, to be sure, mature writers have usually managed to develop a recognisable tone or style – a particular way of writing that becomes familiar to readers of their work; but on the other hand, this can take quite a while to emerge. And besides, many writers succeed in more than one genre. Some move from poetry to fiction, for example (as I’ve done). Some write for both the stage and the page, or for young readers and also for adults, and so on. Different voices, different authorial selves.

This was the theme of a workshop I conducted last weekend at the Toodyay Public Library as part of the Avon Valley Literary Festival. My session was titled “Finding Your Voice as a Writer: Poetry or Prose?” – but I began by saying that it was a somewhat misleading label, not to be taken at face value.

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A writer rests his voice while his workshoppers labour over a task.
[Photo by Amanda Curtin]

The writing exercises I asked my group to undertake were intended to suggest that there isn’t just one single unique voice a writer ought to use. Several voices are available. The idea that being “true to yourself” as a writer requires you to fix definitively and permanently on one form of expression, and one only, can be quite unhelpful. In any case, even if you’re destined to succeed in just one kind of writing, there’s no simple test for determining whether your true eventual vocation is to become a poet, a novelist, an essayist, a biographer, a playwright, a specialist in short fiction or something else.

Perhaps an experienced author and mentor could help you work out whether a particular form or genre suits your talents best – but it would take much more than a single session to do this. All that a workshop like the one I conducted in Toodyay can do is encourage participants to explore together a few things that may be worth keeping in mind while gradually developing (over a longer period) a sense of their potential literary direction or directions. A variety of simple writing exercises should help to loosen up the creative muscles and make the act of writing a bit more supple and flexible.

“Poetry or prose?” Well, that’s also a misleading question, a false antithesis. Poetry and prose are certainly not opposites, and sometimes they may overlap. The contrasting categories are actually prose and verse. This isn’t a mere academic quibble; it’s basic and important. In verse, lines don’t go as far as the margins; in prose they do. Poetry is able to inhabit either verse or prose. You can have prose that is poetic, and verse that isn’t. Consider this:

I put my hat upon my head
And walked along the street.
My hands were in my pockets.
My shoes were on my feet.

That’s verse – but far from poetic. It’s in every sense pedestrian, a silly little jingle that strings together dull statements devoid of memorable images or ideas. The lines are rhythmically regular and there’s a pattern of rhymes – but such things don’t create poetry.

In contrast, some prose can have all the vital qualities poetry – startling and nuanced imagery, unforgettable turns of phrase, haunting rhythms, a compressed blend of thought and feeling… I quoted an example from Andrew Greig’s book The Loch of the Green Corrie in an earlier blog post on poetry and prose.

Nevertheless, poetry more often inhabits verse. Why? Think about the word “verse”: it comes from the Latin for a line, a row, a ploughed furrow. It’s connected to the verb meaning to turn. So on the written page, because verse keeps turning back abruptly to start another line – to plough another furrow of words – those line breaks produce pauses, slowing a reader down. They give emphasis to rhythmic patterns of words. They highlight visual features of the phrasing – images and figures of speech. They direct our attention (often in small, subtle ways) to qualities that are inherent in the language but are more likely to be overlooked or underdeveloped in the continuous flow of prose.

“Finding Your Voice as a Writer: Poetry or Prose?” – the question is slightly malformed. It’s better to think about the potential of plural voices, about the specific features of verse forms that are especially hospitable to poetry, but also about the ways in which prose can sometimes achieve most of the qualities of a poem.

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