“Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.” —Meg Rosoff, author
The writer was young, she had ideas; she wrote her required essay in a burst of enthusiasm, convinced it not only exemplified her voice but revealed the crux of her soul. She’d spent hours, days, weeks on it; dug deep, pushed hard, got feedback from trusted friends, parents, a favorite aunt who’d published several books. She polished and shined and edited and tweaked, and when she finally handed it in, excited to get her beloved teacher’s feedback and a hoped for “A,” she felt as if she’d just delivered the finest piece of writing she’d managed so far in her young life.
It came back with his scrawled note: “Where are you in this? Good ideas but the execution isn’t there. You sound like you’re trying to sound like someone else, and I know you can do better. You’re a good writer, but this is lazy. See what else you can come up with, and run it by me again.”
She couldn’t even remember the grade—it might have been a C+. All that stuck was the gut punch of having so badly miscalculated her abilities.
Or had she?
She came to me with the essay, and when I saw the teacher’s note, along with his scribbled red marks throughout, I grumbled to myself: “This is why I hate writing classes.”
Now, to be fair to writing classes and writing teachers, I’m know there are many good ones. Classes in which teachers are not literary demagogues indoctrinating students in the “my way/highway” school of thought. Teachers who nurture a writer’s voice, no matter what age, rather than inject their own. Teachers who don’t tell a student how they (the teacher) would write it, but help the student write it as they (the student) sees fit. Teachers who know how to critique without killing a person’s soul.
I’m sure there are many of those. Just not enough.
What bothered me about this girl’s experience was that there seemed so little about her voice that her teacher acknowledged: her originality, her tone, her unique twist of phrase and spin of sentence. Yes, it needed editing; I might have made different choices with some of the verbiage, surely the included dialogue had some clunky bits. But it also screamed of originality and literary irreverence, taking chances on ideas and expressions that made it refreshingly … fresh.
Since it was intended as her college essay, I offered her some minor notes and encouraged her to send it in largely as it was. She got into the college of her choice (not sure how much the essay contributed) and will, hopefully, continue to define and trust her voice in whatever mediums it speaks. Hopefully, too, she will learn the fine and precarious art of sorting out when, how, and from whom to take creative critique and guidance.
That’s a tough thing, that assignment. Particularly when you’re learning, when you’re a new writer still sorting out what your voice is. Certainly when you’re paying people to teach you the art and craft of writing. Because, as we all know, everyone has an opinion, sometimes very different opinions; sometimes even conflicting opinions, all of which can leave your head in a swirling eddy of confusion.
But here’s the thing: anyone trained in basic knowledge can teach you technique, grammar, and punctuation; the pros and cons of passive voice, who the omniscient narrator is, and why first-person tense can be tricky. You can subscribe to wizened rules that insist you “write every day” (you don’t have to), “don’t watch TV” (nonsense, Stephen King), or “sit and stare at the blank page until something strikes you” (go out and walk instead). You can imitate someone else’s style until you find your own, you can give your work to every single person who ever showed interest in what you had to say, and listen to, and attempt to implement, every single thing they offer in terms of critique and advise and feedback and … phew!
You can do all that. But no one, no one, can teach you voice. Can teach you talent. Can teach you style. Can make you an original, unique writer. That’s all you. All yours. Seek it, experiment with it, find it, then hold it dear.
"Holding it dear” is the challenging part, because writers will always get feedback that suggests we change what we wrote. Always. Make the protagonist more likable. Leave out the religious stuff. Change her profession. Lighten the tone. Give the father a girlfriend. Darken the tone. Set it in Vietnam instead of the American South. You know the drill.
And we are trained, early on, to graciously listen to that criticism, that feedback, appraisal, and commentary from our elders, teachers, mentors, even sometimes our creative peers. We are instructed to not be defensive, proprietary, obstinate, and intractable. We know we are wise to learn what we can from them, to glean from them every speck of wisdom and insight. In fact, we’d be foolish to squander those resources in lieu of ego, defensiveness, and amateurishly thin skin. All of that is true.
But, still. There is a point when the original, unique voice of an artist gets to assert itself and reject the opinions, advice, and feedback of others. When?
I don’t know. It’s unique to every experience. To every person. To every project. It’s a gut thing. You know it when you feel it. In my case?
As a young songwriter, I walked away from a music publishing deal with a very big company because the guy offering it (the head guy, mind you) had, in my one-on-one meeting with him in his office, laughed at my lyrically-oriented songs, saying, “Great voice, but see, we don’t need all those words. No one listens to words. What I need is more stuff like, ‘Pour a Little Sugar On Me.’ Do you think you can do that, sweetheart?” I didn’t. Was it stupid of me to walk away, sweat pouring down my back and stomach tied in knots, feeling as if I’d just saved my children from imminent death? Probably. But I couldn’t see how signing a deal to speak in someone else’s voice made any sense at all. I still don’t.
I hired a well-respected literary consultant (who’d been an agent) to read and consult on my first novel. It had, by this point, been arduously content-edited by two brilliant editors, been through a team of advanced readers and was copyedited, proofed, formatted, designed, and ready to go. And she hated it. She didn’t like the female protagonist or the secondary characters; she didn’t like the plot, the voice, the heart and soul of the book. She basically suggested a page-one rewrite. After pulling my head out of the pit into which it fell after reading her notes, I thought long and hard about what she had to say. I sat and re-read the book. I cried some, ate potato chips in ridiculous amounts, and I came to realize this: I didn’t agree with her. I was terrified to reject the advice of someone with such literary gravitas, but I felt, in my gut, that we were simply two very different people with two very different, subjective perspectives, and while I honored hers, my own was wildly disparate and undoubtedly my priority. And, unlike the denouement with the music publishing company, this one turned in my favor: I stuck to my guns, the book went on to win several awards, garner amazing reviews, and is even being used as a teaching tool in a European writers’ school. And the odds are good that the literary consultant still wouldn’t like it.
The message I want to spread from these two examples is to trust your gut. This can be an intimidating thing to sort out: knowing when to trust your gut and when to shut up and just take the notes. So, when you get a critique that sizzles the first several layers of your skin, do this:
First, scream. Then put the work down, sit for a minute and percolate. Simmer. Do a power walk with Adele blasting in your ears. Don’t think about it at all. Then think about it a lot. Mull it. Reach back to when you first got inspired to write this thing, what energy and creative frisson got your fingers tingling, demanding that you “put it all down.” Remember what you felt compelled to say, who your characters were as they sprang into your head and how their thoughts, words, and actions led you and pulled you in the direction the story evolved. Once you’ve reassembled all that and it’s fresh in your mind, decide how far you’re willing to tailor your voice to suit someone else’s perspective. Sometimes it’s a ways; sometimes, as in my case, it’s not far at all.
I had a mentor once tell me (and I’m paraphrasing, albeit, I think, quite brilliantly): “You can give your work to 10 people, and you’ll get 10 opinions. More people? More opinions. In fact, you can gather opinions until the day you’re so weighted down by the voices of others you lose your own, and then you put your work down, enervated and confused, and sometimes don’t pick it back up again. Bad idea.”
His alternative? He suggested I identify five people I trusted whose expertise and creative sensibilities most closely aligned with my own, whose editorial ideas most frequently impelled my enthusiasm to get back in and make changes; whose voices seemed to ring in harmony with mine, and trust those people to read and give me feedback. He didn’t believe in beta readers, online community input from strangers, or open group critique. He felt those things diluted the singular voice of the writer, and often reduced a truly original work to a collaborative patchwork of disparate ideas.
Is he right? Many would say he isn’t, that there is much to gain from the diverse opinions of a wide range of readers. Me?
I have my five people (it sometimes goes up to eight)—all skilled writers, editors, or directors whom I trust implicitly and whose creative and editorial contributions to my work have been both brilliant and invaluable. I don’t use beta readers, I don’t widely disseminate “early pages,” and I don’t open my work up to community contribution. It’s a choice; I realize this. I know others who implementthose tools and swear by them. But my personal journey has led me where I am, and it has encompassed a deep commitment to learning my craft, honing it over years in a wide variety of mediums, adapting and expanding along with growing trends and platforms, and evolving to a state of absolute trust and faith in my own voice.
It’s a heady place to be.
Anyone who gets there will feel a certain freedom that allows you to generously welcome the feedback of others with utter confidence that you’ll know what you can use and what you can’t. You'll know what resonates and what doesn’t. You won’t doubt yourself. You won’t quibble. You’ll revel in good critique to help make your work the best it can be, but you’ll always know where the line sits for you. That comes from experience, and trust … in yourself.
Lorraine Devon Wilke’s writing includes over a decade as a political/cultural contributor to HuffPost and other popular media/news sites. Her articles have been globally disseminated, reprinted in books, articles, and academic tomes. She continues to write cultural essays and commentary through her blog, RockPaperMusic.com. Her third novel, The Alchemy of Noise, is being published in April via She Writes Press. Links to her work, writing awards, and other details of her creative background can be found at LorraineDevonWilke.com.