Writer’s Block Doesn’t Exist – Part 4: Choir of Voices

“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

0. PREVIOUSLY

Hark! David Kleinsteuber recounts Chapter the Third!:

“I don’t have the qualities necessary for writing; neither the talent, nor the inner energy, nor the feel for words. As such, I am not a writer, and there’s no point in my trying to write.

Many of us who write or aspire to write have from time to time felt something like this. It’s a not particularly encouraging, blocky kind of thought. So: what to do?

In part 3 of Writer’s Block Doesn’t Exist, our editor Casper tackles talent, practice, and the roles they play in your productivity.

Also: are you a writer, or are you someone who writes?”

1. QUEST

“Find your voice!” This phrase is frequently repeated in the realm of writers, sometimes to a point where searching for it becomes an obsession, like it’s the holy grail. With all this emphasis on finding one’s voice, many writers worry about it, and this can potentially lead them to feeling blocked. But for all the artists clamoring about the importance of that voice, I haven’t heard many challenge the notion yet. So let’s just think about this for a second, and ask the following two questions:

Is it really necessary to find your voice?

And, whether the answer is yes or no:

Why?

***

Bearing that in mind, let’s venture back in time. I remember this vividly. Twelve years old, brimming with writing energy, and driven by imagination, I sat at my computer and wrote my first story. Omikron. Yes, that Lord of the Rings rip-off that I talked about in Part 1 of this series. It was a wonderful experience because this time I was not reading someone else’s work, but I was creating my own. I remember being fascinated with the fact that I could open an empty document, and start filling it with words, creating my own world and my own characters and my own adventures. It felt like magic, but I couldn’t quite explain why—I was still too inexperienced, just a boy. Looking back on it now, however, it’s obvious to me.

Sitting at my computer, the words simply came to me[1]. I wrote lines that before I didn’t even realize I could come up with. Then my eyes started to glaze over, my fingers went on typing, and I embodied that story. I told it in a voice that didn’t even seem like my own, because it certainly wasn’t what I sounded like when talking to my friends, or my sister, or my parents, or anyone, really. Sometimes it was like something or someone else was doing the writing for me (still is, actually). I suppose it was as creepy as it was thrilling to me.

Though the grammar was shit, the spelling crap and the pacing way off (this was my first attempt; naturally I had a lot to learn), there was something to the ideas that I put into the story. Ideas, just like the words themselves, that I didn’t quite put together beforehand, but simply wrote down as I went. Though there was a hobbit (again, ripped straight from Lord of the Rings; can you really blame my 12 year old self for loving The Hobbit and the movie adaptations?), my original ideas were wild. It starts with an unnamed narrator speaking directly to the reader, inviting the reader to join him in a clearing in a forest to listen to his tale. The story proper opens with the kind of psychedelic dream sequence that might lead people to think it’s written on acid, though my 12 year old self had no idea what acid was.

Below I’ll show you a passage from that story. I’ve put the original Dutch text first for those who can read the language, followed by an English translation for those who can’t. However, if you read the English version, please bear in mind that it’s somewhat difficult to translate a piece I wrote as a 12-year-old along with all the linguistic errors. Nevertheless I tried to stay as close to the original as I could, and besides, the point isn’t to show you the mistakes I made: the point is to show you the raw, untamed voice of a child.

Een kleine hobbit liep om 2 uur s’nachts op een open plek in het bos. Natuurlijk op deze plek waar wij nu zitten. Hij ging op deze boomstronk zitten en rustte wat uit. Hij had al een lange reis achter de rug en was dood moe. Hij telde de sterren, hij staarde er een tijd naar en viel in slaap. Hij droomde over een soort Egyptische god. Deze god had de achter poten van een adelaar, de borst en de buik waren van mensen vlees. Net zo als de armen. Op de rug groeide reusachtige vleugels en de hals was bedekt met veren en op plaats waar de lippen zouden zitten zat een snavel. De ogen leken de ogen van een kat en hij had voorde rest alleen veren op het hoofd. Hij hoorde vaag de naam van deze god. Hij had de naam: Ellion.
Toen zag hij dat deze god een lange staf had. Hij schoot er een flits uit. Hierna werd deze droom beëindigd.

A small hobbit was walking, at 2 O’clock at night, in a clearing in the forest. Of course at this spot where we are sitting now. He sat down on this tree trunk and rested some. He had had a long journey behind him and was dead tired. He counted the stars, he stared at them awhile and fell asleep. He dreamed about a kind of Egyptian god. This god had the rear legs of an eagle, the chest and belly were of human flesh. Just as the arms. On the back grew enormous wings and the neck was covered with feathers and where the lips would’ve been was a beak. The eyes looked like the eyes of a cat and he had, as for the rest, only feathers on his head. He heard vaguely the name of this god. He had the name: Ellion.
Then he saw that this god had a long staff. He shot a flash out of it. After this the dream was ended.

At the age of 12 I wasn’t concerned with finding my voice. Of course I had never heard of that notion, but besides that I was simply put too inexperienced to bother with technique at all. As I stated in Part 1 of this series, writing this story was a form of expressing imagination; it was the next step after bashing action figures together. I was playing, and having fun. I knew nothing of writing, but did it anyway. However, at the time I didn’t realize that this is in fact the foundation of what my writing voice would develop into. A foundation which has always been a part of me. Writing this story was just the first real product of that foundation. It was the start of a logical, gradual progression.

As I continued to grow up, I kept reading lots of books and I kept writing. I first started to pick up on little details while reading Stephen King, at the age of 16 or 17. For instance, I didn’t just read King’s dialogue but I suddenly came to see just how he had formatted it. I began to study it, and tried it out in my own writing. And once I had seen that dialogue trick, I almost automatically started to notice other things as well. Every discovery was like unlocking a new piece of equipment in a video game. The moment that I found a new technique, I geeked out and couldn’t wait to try it myself and see how exactly I was supposed to use it.

I felt like an explorer, like a stranger in a strange land. Seeing other writers expressing themselves on paper, in ways I’d never thought of, was like interacting with natives in a foreign country for the first time, learning how they view the world.

Where the output at the age of 12 was raw and all about the daydreams that drove me, the process of writing became more and more serious as I got older. The writing matured as I matured. Every piece is a reflection of where my mind was at around that time.

I wrote in many different voices. Direct, no-nonsense voices, focusing almost exclusively on action. I practiced building up suspense by finding ways to withhold information from the reader. I wrote incredibly formal texts, sounding almost like a boring government official. Even heartfelt letters to imaginary people, exploring a vast range of emotions, feeling what the characters feel. I’ve written poetry, science fiction, fantasy, horror, mundane stories and a ton of academic papers. And yet, though I remained conscious about my own writing and continuously set little goals for myself so I could learn, not once did I think about my voice, let alone the importance of finding it. In fact, it wasn’t until years later that I first heard the phrase, and since then my opinion on it has changed several times.

2. DARK

I have met many writers who straight-up tell me that they’re too afraid to show their writing to anyone. In fact, I’d say the majority of the writers that I’ve talked to have confessed this to me. I’ve heard different reasons, but for the most part it boils down to the idea of not being good enough. The idea of not being able to say exactly what’s on your mind, and therefore writing a piece that’s just not strong enough. The idea of not being ready to share the work with others. And I get it, I do.

The artwork that we produce is an extension of ourselves. A part of our soul that we put on display. Making art is an act of self-expression, and in doing so we render ourselves vulnerable. We’re in the spotlight, and all eyes are on us, and we open ourselves up to criticism. To judgment. Perhaps even to pesky internet trolls who waste too much of their time spreading negativity online. Just imagine someone coming up to us, telling us straight to our face that they hate what we created. That they think it’s the worst piece of shit that they’ve ever read. It hurts, because it feels like they aren’t saying that about our work, but about ourselves.

As for me, I’m not going to lie and say I’ve never struggled with this. To tell you the truth, I’ve doubted my skills numerous times in the past, have felt the nerves, the anxiety. For example, whenever I had to hand in a paper for university. Knowing that it would get marked often sparked anxiety within me. I refused to even talk about the paper to anyone until I’d received my grade. However, every time I got back my paper, it turned out that my fears were unfounded as I’d passed the assignment.

Whenever people asked me if they could read some of my work, I’d try not to show them I was nervous. I’d send them the piece, but secretly read it from start to finish to make sure I hadn’t overlooked anything stupid that they might judge me for. Yet this feeling, slowly but certainly, grew weaker over time with every story that I shared.

I’ve also been writing and recording numerous songs with my musical spirit cousin, Trevor Vreeburg; while he usually plays the guitar, I mostly sing. But in the beginning our music sounded like the squealing of a bunch of pigs ripe for the slaughter. Whenever we let someone listen to the tunes, I’d feel anxious on the inside because they’d hear my voice and I was afraid they might think it sucked. But we learned and evolved over time, and after hearing my own singing over and over, and especially hearing how I got better, I got used to it, and it didn’t seem that scary anymore.

Each time I get on a stage to read a poem or a short story I feel the nerves, because I know that what I’m about to read to a crowd is incredibly personal. Basically, I lay bare my soul, allowing complete strangers to see me exactly as I am. It’s terrifying, but as I continue to do this it gets easier, and I come out stronger in the end.

But I’ll never forget the first time I got on a stage to play an acoustic solo gig. Where playing a show with my band is nothing but a party as I explode with energy together with my band bros, that acoustic gig was just me and my guitar. Alone. Strumming the strings as I sang about incredibly personal stuff. It being acoustic means that the audience can hear every single mistake. Now, I wasn’t necessarily anxious before the performance, but I was certainly nervous. There were even dark thoughts shooting across my mind about failing miserably and embarrassing myself. But I did it anyway, and although I fucked up here and there, I got only positive reactions from the audience.

So I know what it feels like, and I know it isn’t easy to overcome such doubts and fears. It’s like being lost in the dark, disorientated and afraid you might bump into an object or fall into a hole in the ground. Then you begin to imagine there’s something creeping up on you, something that wants to grab you and sink its teeth into your neck. But in the distance you see a flickering, and instinctively you begin to move toward the light because you associate it with safety. In the light, everything is clear and bright and you can see where you’re going. In the light, all the imaginary monsters and worries about falling into holes disappear.

Making art can be like this. In the dark we don’t really know what we are doing. We can’t see the quality of our output, and we struggle, and we’re prone to projecting. The criticism, the judgments, the pesky internet trolls—these are the imaginary monsters that we feel creeping up on us. No matter what direction we turn into as we try to run from them, we just come up against another such monster that scares the living crap out of us. But there’s a place where they can’t follow, and that place is in the spotlight.

3. ROAR

The moment I first heard the phrase “find your voice,” I thought that that was the answer to everything. Once I’d find that elusive voice, I’d be ready to take on the world. I searched for it, and at times got frustrated because my writing just didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to turn out. But if I was asked how I wanted it to turn out, I probably couldn’t answer that question. If I was asked what that mysterious voice was like, I definitely couldn’t answer that one. In other words, I was searching high and low for something without having the slightest idea of what exactly I was looking for. At the same time, I kept telling myself I wasn’t ready until I found that voice. But even then, ready for what? Obviously, this wasn’t exactly helping me on my path, and as a result the drive to write began to diminish. I still told myself and others I was a writer, and yet I didn’t write for a year. I didn’t call it a writer’s block, but the drive to write was almost gone. Until I started working on a fantasy novel called Silvermoon Saints, and it felt like a rebirth. I had a fresh new idea and I was writing again and it felt good. But it also meant that the quest for that voice had begun again.

Yet, one day, I wrote The Elf in the Machine, the short story I talked about in Part 2 of this series. Writing that was a breakthrough moment in that finally something clicked with me. Initially I thought that I’d found my voice, a characteristic way to express myself in my writing, and so the quest for that elusive voice ceased. Little did I know that it had nothing to do with finding my voice.

I stopped trying to speak, or even scream as loudly as I could; stopped willing the world to hear me. Instead, for the first time, I listened in silence to the echo of a voice. It wasn’t strange that I thought it was a new discovery at all, but soon I came to understand there was nothing inherently new about it. I had not found something that hadn’t been a part of me before; in fact, I’d been honing the voice I’d always had over the years. It developed into something more powerful than it had ever been. Since The Elf I’ve felt ready to roar at the world, to speak my truth as loudly as I can. Not because I found my voice, but because I’ve been practicing and thereby reached a point where I feel comfortable about the way that I express myself.

I don’t mind if people don’t like the way that I sound, because this just happens to be my voice, and I enjoy this voice. And because I enjoy writing like this, and I enjoy what I write about, I’m unafraid to share my work and make it personal and lay bare my soul. Those who dislike it can just read something else, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of writers out there and to each their own. It’s not like I’m going to stop writing because people don’t enjoy my style.

4. VOICES

Here are a few practical things to take into consideration. As always, this is just my point of view, and you are encouraged to form your own opinions on these things.

First of all, stop trying to find your voice. If you get caught up in that quest, you won’t have the time to listen to the voice you already have. If you aren’t listening to your current voice, then you won’t see the things you could improve on. Instead, look at your own work, and find out what it is about your work that makes it unique. Then, keep writing and try to improve on the unique qualities. Eventually, after as many writing sessions as necessary, you will experience a breakthrough moment like I did; the moment where everything clicks into place. But don’t be deterred if this moment doesn’t seem to arrive. It will arrive, but it takes time. Besides, it’s just an outcome, and as I said in Part 2, don’t focus on outcomes. In this case, it will only lead back to the idea of trying to find your voice, and you’ll end up going in circles. Instead, allow the moment to come whenever it will, and in the meantime you show up and do the work. Remember: the key is to write consciously and being present with the writing process itself. Trying to find some vague voice—possibly even perceived as external to yourself—only serves as a distraction.

Second, write what you love and love what you write. There’s nothing wrong with loving your own creations, because our stories are our babies, aren’t they? And since when is it not okay for a parent to love their own child? Furthermore, love is the strongest force in the world. If your work exudes this powerful force, people will feel this when reading your work, and they’ll fall in love with it. That’s how you gain an audience.

Third, to make your writing stronger, write about what you know. That means doing research if necessary. For instance, if you want to write a novel with historical facts, you need to get your facts straight. Additionally, if you want to write a fantasy novel set in a world of your own design, with a history of your own making, then that means you need to do some ground work before you can start writing the story itself. First build your world, then write your story. That’s not to say, of course, that you can’t leave any room for new discoveries. It just means that you need to know what countries exist in your world, who’s ruling those countries, the reason for the war raging across the world, etc. Furthermore, if you write a detective story you need to know who the killer is and why he killed; if you write a story from the perspective of someone who’s drunk, you need to know what it’s like to be drunk; and if you write about a school teacher, at least talk to some teachers if you aren’t one yourself.

Fourth, make your writing personal. The only way to overcome your fears is by facing them. Be brave and bold and write about personal memories, things you’ve experienced, things you’re embarrassed about. You don’t have to tell your readers that it’s all true; in fact, you don’t even have to write word for word what happened to you. It’s okay to put it in a different context. It’s okay to not identify with the main character as yourself, even though said character goes through things you’ve gone through. Making it personal doesn’t mean you have to reveal every dirty secret about yourself; it just means telling the truth to a degree. You still decide how far you want to take things. But in general readers appreciate authenticity, and will pick up on such authenticity in your writing even if they can’t exactly pinpoint it.

Fifth, once you begin to experiment with different genres, you will discover that you actually write in different voices. For instance, my short story voice (see The Elf) is different from my non-fiction voice (which you read here). When I write poetry it’s worlds apart from when I write academic papers. Especially in a novel I use many different voices. If I have a larger cast, each passage will thematically reflect the current point-of-view character. And in dialogue there are many different voices, of course, because the characters don’t sound the same. So, in short, our voices vary from genre to genre, and from character to character. Therefore, there isn’t just one voice you’re working with, but you actually have an entire choir of voices at your disposal. You just have to learn to recognize them, and find the right instances to use them. This can be done through practice. Lots of practice. There’s nothing mysterious about it, and it’s all already in you. You just gotta hone them.

Last, you don’t owe anyone anything. It’s perfectly fine to keep your writing to yourself if you don’t want others to see it. I don’t always show everyone everything; there are certain pieces that I keep to myself. But if you do want to get published (in a magazine or with a publishing house or on a blog), you’re going to have to accept that there are people out there who might dislike your writing. You’re going to have to accept that you cannot please everyone. The only person you can be sure to please is yourself, because it’s your work, it’s your effort, it’s your baby. In the end, you are the only one who can write down the story that you have in mind. Nobody can tell it like you. If you can embrace this, you will eventually begin to feel a sense of confidence, which will grow stronger with every piece that you put out there. You just have to believe in yourself, and in your ideas, and in your ability to write a damn good piece. I believe in you.

To conclude, as always, I’d like to end on a question. This question is tied to the idea of a voice, and confidence, and skill, but for the most part it’s tied to the reason why you write. After all, it’s important to be honest with yourself, especially if you want to make your art stronger. As such, I’m asking you this:

Who do you write for?

5. NEXT

We are almost at the end of the series. Next essay is going to be the final installment. Therefore it seems fitting to write about the fear of running out of ideas. This is arguably the biggest problem that can cause a so-called writer’s block, and I think it’s important to talk about because I’ve heard even professional writers admit that this is their greatest fear. It could potentially drive writers away from the thing they love the most, and so I’ll try to offer a solution, a way out. But let’s not worry about that for now. Just consider the question I posed at the end of section 4, and keep practicing. And remember you have absolutely nothing to be afraid of.

 

Endnotes

[1]    The words simply coming to me has to do with me being an energetic writer. In Part 3: Talent and Practice I made a distinction between energetic writers and egoic writers. The former are driven by inherent writing energy, and feel a nearly unquenchable thirst for self-expression through writing, whether they want it or not. The latter need some external incentive to create. For an in-depth analysis, please see Part 3.

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