By Jaclyn Tockstein
If I asked you how you define a writer’s voice, could you do it? It seems as though most writers can spot when voice may be absent from a piece, but cannot define what it is or explain how to cultivate it. Susan Bruns Rowe, a writer and professor, suggests that “when we know our subject inside and out, we can’t help but speak with authority, with confidence, with a distinctive voice. Hence the old adage, ‘write what you know.'”
I found my voice as a writer on a warm summer day while working as a docent for the Meadow Brook Writing Project at Meadow Brook Hall. Surprisingly enough, I had not written a single word for six whole months prior to this day. I was still a student at Oakland University, majoring in Writing and Rhetoric, but I had nearly given up on the idea of writing for pleasure ever again after watching my mother pass away following her valiant battle with cancer. It had been a long winter without her, and my journey through grief had just begun. But on that one summer day, I was offered a prompt with the other students (an opportunity I had been turning down for weeks) – only this time we were being asked to guide our audience through something grand. “Guide me through a dream you once had or through a day in your life,” the teacher said. In that moment, it occurred to me that I might be able to guide someone through my pain and grief. I wondered if I could somehow show just one person what it was really like to suffer this way and know that it only ends when the clock runs out. From that day on, I wrote for her. From that day on, I wrote with a voice.
Voice can be a powerful attribute if it’s used well. When writers complain about being turned down by an editor or publication, I find myself quietly making assumptions about their voice and message. Editors at all levels have the power to advocate for pieces with literary merit that they feel strongly about, so having a unique voice can mean the difference between an acceptance and a formal decline.
There’s some truth behind writing what you know to find your voice, but then how would you make a story about the paper supply company (that you hypothetically work for) sound compelling and unique to the voice of the writer? In my own experience, it seems as though my voice is most present when I not only know the subject matter well, but additionally when I feel strongly and passionately about the message. A writer’s voice can only be as strong as his/her message. Therefore, my advice to you is to look for areas of your life that you feel strongly about and begin to find your voice by first writing what you know on the subject. Teach your reader why this person, experience, or idea is so astronomically important that they need to see/feel/understand/act as you do. With an enthralling enough message, you’ll find that your voice as a writer…well, it speaks for itself.