When you’re inside a piece of writing that hums and crackles and sparks, when a real person is talking to you from the page, you’ve encountered a voice. “Voice” is what writing feels like. It sets off sympathetic vibrations in readers. It gives us a sense of connection to another live human presence, creating a real and complex moment of communication. As the poet Adrienne Rich put it, words written with voice have “the sheer heft / of our living behind” them. 1Quoted in Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write: Essays toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 206.
We already have voices, so the guidance to “find” one’s voice is often confusing for writers. If you’ve read about voice, you might have encountered the idea that it is a singular essence that animates writing, made up of craft and style choices and tone, and that it is somehow connected to our “real self.” As a young writer, I heard this advice suggesting that I had one “authentic” voice, the “real me,” with the rest of my expression somehow impure or fake. I knew that I had a certain style, a set of phrases and an underlying grammar that united much of my writing, but when I thought about my voice, I felt self-conscious. That “one voice” concept made me feel like I couldn’t stray far from my roots, like I had one crayon to color with. Following that idea, it seemed like I’d somehow have to incorporate all of my being and influences into one mode of expression so that, no matter what, I’d always sound a little like a Midwesterner stuck in the 1980s, and my true style was a kind of anchor or tether, one I’d always circle around, with a limited range. Worse, I couldn’t even tell you much about my “singular voice” beyond a list of words I chose regularly, a few bad habits of sentence construction, and some influences of region and era.
Throughout my years of teaching writing, I have tended to skip the question of voice because it didn’t seem to help my students. Instead, I gave them writing prompts and asked them to inhabit various perspectives, real and imagined, past, present, and future. As these writers exercised and stretched and explored these different selves, they began to feel something flow that had been frozen. They began to inhabit their writing, and that comfort on the page often transferred far outside the world of memoir or the personal essay and enlivened their academic writing. But I didn’t yet have a theory about why this worked.
As Janet Burroway writes, “Begin by knowing, and exploring, the fact that you already have a number of different voices.”2Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson, 2010, 49 You can borrow voices, learn to listen to your own, exercise them so they grow stronger, trade them, try others on for size. And you get as many as you want. When you use one, two more appear. And yet they are all connected and shifting. Every voice we develop is an interface or cognitive tool to help us interact with a specific slice of the world in a specific time and place. We move along throughout our lives, and we discard some of our old voices, or they are used to make new ones. Once you appreciate all the voices you have to work with, you can mine them, and discover others, for writing in all genres. Your web of voices is you—but it’s also other people’s impact on you, what you’ve read, and what you’ve experienced. As Walt Whitman wrote, you “contain multitudes.” And as Felicia Rose Chavez writes, “How we speak is as abundant as we are.”3Chavez, Felicia Rose. The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021, 41.
I stumbled into my own experiments with voice when I began literally to stumble with an autoimmune disease. Chronic pain affected my joints, but it also affected my energy, my thinking, and my writing voice. Before I got sick, the writer voice only needed coffee to get started. I’d sit down at the screen, and words would appear. I didn’t always know what would appear on the page or how good it would be or where it would go, but I always knew that words would appear. But after I got sick, I felt like I couldn’t think, couldn’t zip along and fling handfuls of words at the keyboard. Instead, I pecked one letter at a time, my thoughts unspooling very slowly. I scrawled panicked and sad journal entries between naps, doctors’ visits, and angry attempts to wash dishes and do chores with hands that didn’t seem to work. I had to switch gears constantly to become the assistant professor doing all of her jobs well and calmly. Without that assistant professor role, there would have been no health insurance for me or my five-year-old son, and no food. But going to work used almost all the energy I had.
I fought against this change. I forced myself to write the way I’d always written, escalating a terrible battle between my mind and my body. I got depressed because my writing had always been the one thing about my life that I could control. At the root of this was a lot of anger toward myself and the world and a lot of fear about what my future might bring. I did not want to be where I was, and I didn’t want to have to give up writing.
Luckily, I was also beginning to understand the nature of disability. I found support from other disabled writers, and the work they’d done to reframe disability as an insight-giving window into reality, rather than a deficit, helped me to begin to rebuild my life and my writing.
Eventually, as I adapted, I began to look back at the accumulating journal entries about pain. I had been writing a book, though I hadn’t realized it. And what I was beginning to write was unlike what I had thought of as my style. Well, there were definitely elements of my style—not things I necessarily loved about my writing but things that were as deep as my scars and my life story. Yep, I loved Star Wars, and the space and sci-fi metaphors abounded. Yep, part of me sounded like the Illinois girl I’ll always be, though she was always fencing and jabbing at my professor voice. And yes, my deep abiding love for mixed metaphors was laid on thick in the writing about pain. Looking at those chunks of raw writing was like looking at a mountain laid open, all the geological layers. Out of desperation and necessity, I was creating something new that reflected my new existence in the world.
I was leaning on some old vices and tricks, amped up tenfold, and in different combinations. And then in other places the writing was so thin and stark, a slow kind of writing I had never needed to do before, and it was so direct and clear. I benefited as I wrote, over and over again, from the support of other writers who claimed their bodily experience and described it. The words slowly cohered, along with my growing understanding of disability and my understanding of my own ableism. And the community helped me appreciate and hear new voices within myself. One voice, which I named Pain Woman, was the beginning of my conscious thinking about voices.
Once I started naming her and other voices, I felt set free. There was no need to hunt for some core voice. I could go wherever I wanted. I could delve deeply into the voice of the junior high mathlete. I could name voices that no one had ever seen. I experienced a massive sense of relaxation in my own work, the end of rigidly trying to control my own style and voice. I began to see that I could weave voices together for certain writing tasks, and I began to try on different voices to see which would turn a dripping creek back into a torrent. When we get to choose which voice to use, when we name our voices and exercise them, we can then see more options, make more conscious choices, and find more joy and agency in writing. And the more we write into them, the more the voices proliferate.
One of the core concepts of Buddhist philosophy is the idea of “no self.” That doesn’t mean there’s a big void between your ears. Instead, that idea says that the “self” is not a core nugget of identity but a constantly shifting experience, like a river. While both the self and the river have a name and a somewhat predictable set of behaviors, the actual river is never the same river twice. The self, like voice, is more of a mysterious hovering, shifting collection of experience, a flow. The memoirist Thomas Larson writes that “the core self can never be found. It can only be activated now and in the succession of nows” that we encounter in the different moments we live and occasionally set down on paper.4Larson, Thomas. The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. Athens, OH: Swallow Press, 2007, 131. This “succession of nows” creates a palette of voices that can give you options in your writing, and different voices can deliver very different insights.
The writer Eva Hoffman describes her writing process as sorting through these voices, describing a process that I find very resonant and familiar:
I’m writing a story in my journal. . . . I make my way through layers of acquired voices, silly voices, sententious voices, voices that are too cool and too overheated. Then they all quiet down, and I reach what I’m searching for: silence. I hold still to steady myself in it. . . . A voice begins to emerge: it’s an even voice, and it’s capable of saying things straight, without exaggeration or triviality. As the story progresses, the voice grows and diverges into different tonalities and timbres. . . . But the voice always returns to its point of departure, to ground zero. 5Hoffman, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, quoted in Elbow, Everyone Can Write, 181.
Hoffman has a voice she sees as her baseline. I have three or four. Barbara Johnson describes the resonance or richness of voice as coming from “splitness or doubleness,” which I think implies the necessity of multiple voices.6Elbow, “What Do We Mean When We Talk about Voice,” in Voices on Voice: Perspectives, Definitions, Inquiry, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.13. To imagine this, think about plucking one string on a guitar to produce a note. A note sounds nice, but when we strum multiple strings at the same time, then change the pattern and the way we hold those strings in a rhythm, we get music. In writing, that complex strum sound with depth and body is called resonance.
Peter Elbow, who has dedicated his writing career to an outside-the-box understanding of voice, writes, “When readers hear a voice in a piece of writing, they are often more drawn to read it—and that audible voice often makes the words easier to understand.”7Elbow, “Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries” (2007). College English, 7. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.umass.edu/eng_faculty_pubs/7. Phrasing, rhythm, and repetition allow us to feel and absorb meaning from sounds and words. Voice isn’t a spice you add in after you’re done cooking a dish. Voice is the ground where the crops are grown to make the bread.
We too rarely talk explicitly about the struggle to find our voices or the damage done when a voice is derailed. Sometimes we lose the thread of voice. This can happen through overly aggressive criticism of a voice itself rather than a helpful critique of a text and its goals. Losing a voice can be triggered by trauma related to, or external to, writing instruction, including forms of social and systemic oppression. Sometimes our wandering search for the most vital and true voice for our material may not have been encouraged, or we did not encounter models that might have sparked our confidence. Voice is shaped by experience and by the way we interact with other people. As Matthew Salesses writes in Craft in the Real World: “Some authors have been taught to speak quickly if they want to get a word in; others have been taught to hold forth. Breath, too, is about power: it is gendered, raced, etc. To modulate breath means to think about the frequencies we’ve been taught to speak on, and to tune in to how we transmit information and what kind and to whom.”8Salesses, Matthew. Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping. New York: Catapult, 2020, 92.
Some people are taught that they have lots of important things to say, so their voices grow strong and wide. Other people are taught that their voices annoy, are grating, are too much and too angry, or too soft, too wrong. So they grow thick shields and thistles or grow in circles or even grow deep roots underground and pop up somewhere faraway and safe. Many voices are judged as technically “incorrect,” and power and privilege have shaped those judgments over centuries of violence. After years of being told “you’re doing it wrong,” it should be no surprise that many people are self-conscious about their powers of expression, so that they then think they’re not good writers or good thinkers. But even if a person believes they’re not a “good writer,” they have picked up habits of rhythm, beauty, and economy that underlie their communication and animate it, make it work.
Pat Schneider, in Writing Alone and with Others, talks about writers having three categories of voices: an “original voice” of childhood, a “primary voice” used in our present everyday life, and many “acquired voices.” She describes the primary voice as “the natural unself-conscious way we talk to the people we most love and with whom we are most comfortable,” one that has “taken on color and texture from every place we have lived, everyone with whom we have lived, and all that we have experienced.” It has “traces of our original voice” and “the colors, the rhythms, the peculiar intonations of your own generation.”9Schneider, Pat. Writing Alone and with Others. Foreword by Peter Elbow. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, 96. Peter Elbow describes this as the “home voice,” which he says is a necessary ingredient for becoming comfortable with the act of writing itself.10Schneider, Writing Alone, 198, quoting Elbow’s essay “Inviting the Mother Tongue,” Everyone Can Write.
To access home voice and other voices, Elbow helped to popularize the practice of short bursts of “free writing” in which writers spill words on a page in a timed burst, a practice that can be traced back to authors Dorothea Brande and Brenda Ueland in the 1930s, then spread by Elbow, and then used with still wider popularity by writing teachers Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron.11Schneider, Writing Alone, 35. Freewriting has a lineage that connects to gesture drawing in art and to the artistic movements of surrealism and Dadaism, which focus on process and the act of creation. And even before those movements, writers were discovering this technique on their own. Charles Darwin described how he stumbled on this technique, finding that writing worked best when he would “scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can, contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately. Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could have written deliberately.”12Elbow, Vernacular Eloquence, 155, 169.
Elbow argues that writers need to be supported in reconnecting to the source of their expression, which is language and thought itself. He writes that this river of raw speech contains “organizations and genres that you can discover and prune into shape.”13Elbow, “Fragments,” Everyone Can Write, 143. His idea is that speech—how we naturally express ourselves—is the key to good writing and that as we learn to listen to ourselves, we can gather “valuable linguistic resources” from our “careless speech.”14Elbow, Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 78, 91. Essayist Patricia Hampl observes, “The right voice can reveal what it’s like to be thinking.” This points to a method: we have to watch ourselves and listen to ourselves in order to hear and catch those voices and thoughts. In many ways this sets us a deeper and larger goal of noticing those voices that we might not want to hear and of accepting a more varied version of ourselves than the one we might see as our one goal, singular voice, or ideal. 15Elbow, “On the Concept of Voice,” Everyone Can Write, 222.
Once I got comfortable with my voices, I began to think about the hard stuff, the ways in which my voice had been shaped and narrowed and cookie cut. And then I began to push against all those limits, to ask what voices I was allowed to use and what voices I wanted to claim as my own.
You can play dress-up with your voice, with the voices of others, and in that process of changing and enjoying and performing, you can become good at “voicing” itself, at making the sounds and inhabiting the voices, at sensing your own voices, and at tuning in to and appreciating and nurturing the voices of others. You can change your voices as much as you can change your life, and even more. Your voices can wonder about lives you haven’t lived yet.
Adapted from Voice First: A Writer’s Manifesto by Sonya Huber by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright © 2022 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.