In this humorous essay, composition and rhetoric professor Adam Brandner shares his take on finding your writing voice and a few exercises that helped him discover his own.
HOW BURNT IS YOUR SIENNA?
My name is Adam Brandner. I am a teacher, a writer, and a Slytherin.
The topic of writer’s voice is perhaps the most frightening because if you can’t find your voice, can you really be a writer? And if you do find it, will anyone speak the same language as you?
What constitutes a writer’s voice? Writers generally agree that a major component of writer’s voice involves a unique understanding of personality and its Crayola-esque cacophony of convoluted colors. To find your voice, you’ll need a dynamic understanding of your Burnt Sienna, your Cerulean, your Periwinkle, and your Robin’s Egg Blue. Also, a clear understanding of how each color uniquely impacts and informs your grayscale-d book of life experiences.
Life experiences do play a major role in voice as well, but that’s my next paper.
It’s a popular misconception that personality is a form of stylistic spectacle, fancy font selection, or clever grammar Feng Shui. Those are only tactical tricks. A writer’s voice is not just writing tactics. Audiences will tire of tactics, eventually.
Your personality as a writer is simply your soul in Times New Roman.
In The Writing Cooperative, Leona Brits speaks on writer’s voice:
“…[A writer’s voice is] the personal way the writer sees the world, how he translates it. We all see an orange the same way, however, when describing it, each one of us will use our own approach and perspective. I can describe its color … its texture … its taste …”
So, your personality stylizes your storytelling. Writers have some form of magical electricity when they can breathe their personalities into the lungs of Microsoft Word. Without a full voice, a writer cannot reach their full potential. Here, we are going to do two creative exercises that will hopefully help you to find the personality portion of your writer’s voice. But what if you can’t? Don’t worry. I know a secret.
Here’s the secret. Your writer’s voice, is whatever you want it to be. If you want your voice to have certain elements, then it shall be so! You are calling the shots. Your fingers are the ones salsa dancing across the keyboard. You are the Miranda Priestly of your own writing destiny, swinging your powerful trident of control.
Now, you may be thinking that you can definitely swing that trident, or perhaps that you have no clue how to salsa dance. You should know that even the most developed voices are fluid. They morph based upon the evolution of a writer’s life experiences. Whether you are a Dumbledore or a first-year Hufflepuff, these two activities will hopefully expose you to all of the power that you can have when shaping your own voice and future. Even Serena Williams needs a coach …
This essay is focused on personality but to properly unearth and utilize your full voice as a writer, you will need to have a command over all of the colors of your personality and a unique understanding of your life experiences so that you can channel your electric mojo from Microsoft Word to your mom’s Amazon Kindle.
The activities below truly helped me to develop the personality portion of my voice. Let’s see if they can give you a jolt too.
TRUST THE $50,000 FAILURE
Quickly, on trust, they say you shouldn’t trust a man that hasn’t failed big at least once in his life. Well, I wrote and directed a play Off-Broadway in New York City that took three years to develop, cost more than $50,000, and closed after one night. It took me years, and several public failures, to find my voice as a writer.
Awfully cocky of me to claim that I have found my voice, isn’t it? Maybe some could argue that my voice too chaotic or flowery. But even if critics rip my work to shreds, I will keep salsa-dancing across the keyboard, my way. When you’ve found your voice, you just know it. You trust it. It’s like a sneeze. Nobody ever thinks they sneezed. When you do sneeze, you are sure it happened.
By the way, failures can be a good thing. It’s important to start before you are ready. Sure, it will be a bumpy takeoff, but at least you’re off the ground. Failures build personality and offer powerful lessons essential for growth. A quick Google search of me will return a few of my early publications, but the truth is that I don’t care for most of them. I was lucky to be published in my early 20s, however, I was terrified and stumbling around searching for my personality in a pitch-black room with no walls. That’s how Carrie Mathison describes being bi-polar on Showtime’s Homeland.
I was writing like a lost, bi-polar CIA operative off her Lithium. I was writing, nervously, to impress my temporary bosses, I was writing unsure of myself, and I didn’t trust my own voice because it wasn’t mine. My first handful of publications sounded like a handful of different writers. No signature personality whatsoever. It was unnerving getting published because it felt like I was in an Indiana Jones-esque snake pit, blindfolded.
A dark pit that even turned Adam Lambert’s super fans, the Glamberts, on me when my review of his Houston tour raved about his vocals but not about the fact that he was almost three hours late. If I’m going to be attacked by anonymous, internet, Indiana Jones vipers, I want it to be for something I believe in and that I can stand by.
If you trust your voice, then you have a sense of security as a writer. You should want everything you put out there to be so good to you, that you don’t even care how loud the vipers hiss.
Finding your voice as a writer is hard.
That’s why there are so few classics. But…
“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everybody would do it. The hard, is what makes it great.” -Jimmy Dugan, A League of Their Own, 1992.
If both of these activities are a breeze for you, then perhaps the personality portion of your writing voice is well developed at the moment.
If you struggle, then at least you know that the voice you seek is still muted, at least partially.
Writing Voice Activity #1: Career Tombstone
This first activity is meant to be written on your tombstone by someone that you admire. What’s the nicest thing they could say about you and your body of work in the end?
“Adam’s globally-celebrated, inspirational, timeless writing was infused with his signature electric, neon, salsa-dancing energy, and he did such incredible things for American Literature, that he was declared the President of Harvard University. And we are also going to be renaming the Washington Monument in his honor. From henceforth it shall be called: Adam’s Tower of Genius. It shall be painted like a pencil to honor his years in the classroom, crushing it.” -Michelle Obama
This is obviously a fictional pipe-dream as the only interaction that I’ve had with Michelle Obama was when she beautifully, nobly, and gracefully ruined school cafeteria pizza with wheat bread crust. But I get it, we have a lot of fat kids. I know, I was one of them.
But even if the destroyer of pizza said the above quote about me, I would be thrilled to have it on my tombstone. Or to brag about it on Facebook.
This activity shows you what is important to you in the end. It’s nice to know where you’re going. Or at least where you are trying to go.
A few more, for fun:
“I wish Adam Brandner would have been around to write motivational speeches for me. The truth is, Adam is more valuable than a Power Ranger, Leslie Knope, and Beyoncé combined when it comes to timeless American masterpieces.” -Abraham Lincoln
“A diva knows quality, Adam was excellent, and not chubby at all. Lin Manuel Miranda WHO??? William Shakespeare weeps a thousand jealous waterfalls when he reads Adam’s collective works.” -Miss Piggy
The Career Tombstone is a quick little exercise that is meant to show you where you ultimately want to go in your career. It reveals to me that I want respectable people to value me and to think my works are Beyoncé-esque, American classics. Good to know. With this knowledge, I can now begin to design the personality in my voice to harmonize with my career goals, both professionally and creatively.
Writing Voice Activity #2: Writer’s Voice Wish List
If Oprah were to describe me as a writer in just a few words, what would I be honored for those words be?
- Timeless (with a twist of lime)
I still have room to grow, Oprah, but if this is what I desire my writer’s voice to be, then it shall be so, even though it might take a little time and experience. Using my Career Tombstone and my Wish List, I can see a bit more clearly what kind of writer I value. #TennesseeWilliams. These activities are two bricks on the yellow brick road that is meant to guide you to your own career-version of the Emerald City. My Emerald City has free wi-fi, an abundance of rainbows, and all of the munchkins sing like Mariah Carey. Also, we have universal health care and no limits on how much Diet Dr. Pepper you can buy when it’s on sale at Van Til’s.
Alternative Activities (Kitchen Sink Moment)
If you tried my activities and still have absolutely no idea how to acquire understanding and command of your personality as a writer, here are a few other things that helped me to put my personality on the page.
Acting classes, specifically improvisation classes, offer you a chance to dissect your personality as well as gain emotional intelligence. In acting classes, you get to experiment with the voices of others, which is useful for a writer. Acting could help to illuminate your own voice along the way. And you get to do spit takes!
Write five minutes of stand-up comedy to expose your core sense of humor. Are you a punch line writer, like Jerry Seinfeld? Or a narrative comedian, like Kathy Griffin? Or kooky, like Maria Bamford? Maria has an incredibly unique personality, by the way, if you need to see an inspirational, unique example of voice. #TargetLady
Revisit old photos, yearbooks, or Facebook memories to remember the history of your friendships, professional life, mental state, and maturity. Analyze your growth.
THE RAINBOW’S END
We’ve tinkered with personality here, but don’t forget about the significant role that life experiences play when developing your voice. My next paper will dive deeper into life experiences. Have the courage to really look in the mirror and learn from your past triumphs and failures, especially the $50,000 failures. I know that can be a nightmare before Christmas, but remember, your past was just a lesson, not a life sentence.
Design your voice to harmonize with where you want to go as a writer, both professionally and creatively. If you can infuse your unique personality and life experiences into your creative ideas, then I believe that you will have a voice that can confidently shake off the Glamberts. You will also have the tools necessary to write an American classic. #SpaceJam
As always, thanks for reading, Mom.