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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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One Love

I’ve always been a little turned off by the expression, “finding your voice.” Was it lost? Behind door number three? Stolen by fairies in the night? And yet, we know when writers have one and we know when they don’t. My question is: is it something you can find or is it native. Can you locate it? Alter it? Develop it? Deny it? Can you choose it? Can you eat it? Can you fuck it?

What is it exactly: voice? Is having a voice and writing well the same thing? Can you write well and not have a voice? I think so. That’s a lot of what gets submitted. Is voice writing well + distinction? I think voice is like a stamp, a brand, a thumbprint. Even your physical voice. Is this Betsy? This is she. I know some of the commenters on this blog by their voice.

Is voice an extension of personality? Is it channeled? Marshalled? Arrived at? Discovered? Is it a put on? A fashion show? A daily special? All dressed up with some place to go? Or is it fuel, gas, highly oxygenated blood? Where will it take you? What happens when it goes?

40 Responses

  1. Yes, voice is an extension of personality. But like other aspects of our personality–humor, intelligence, bitchiness–it needs to be developed and channeled. And to complicate things, some of us have MANY voices in our head. Does that make us creative, complex or simply schizo?

  2. Voice is not polysyllabic. Don’t use “ruminate” when you’re trying to sound poetic. Don’t use “deleterious” when you’re trying to sound smart.

    Voice does not use emoticons. EVER.

    Voice does not clear its throat. Ahem.

    Voice does not use catch phrases unironically, and even then only if it is Jon Stewart. I kid you not.

    Get rid of bad or lazy speech (see my helpful hints above) because Voice is what’s left after you’ve stopped trying to sound like someone, or everyone, else. I don’t think it’s that hard.

  3. Voice is courage. You don’t find your voice, you just stop giving a shit how you sound.

    Or so I hope. I’m not quite there yet.

  4. I think ‘voice’ is something else created to drive aspiring writers nuts!

    I also think ‘voice’ is, for the most part, an extension of the author’s personality . . . which might explain the snarky voice in most of my writing. Hmmmm . . .

    Excellent post, and I linked to it on my blog so others could come here and join in the discussion. Thanks for all the questions to ponder.


  5. Voice is what is left when you strip away everything else, when you stop trying to write and just write.

  6. i agree with August. voice occurs when you stop caring what anybody else thinks, thus voice has a whole lot to do with risk and self acceptance.

    signed, a fucking writer

  7. I think voice just evolves as you write and your style develops. Two of my favorite writers who have what I believe are truly unique ‘voices’ are James Ellroy and love him or hate him, Cormac McCarthy.

  8. You can’t give voice thought. That stops it from being. It just happens or it doesn’t.

  9. I am a big believer in what I call “authenticity of voice.” I suppose you could also call it “style” or “speaking your truth.” It is what distinguishes one writer from another and all the great writers have this. Of course, that alone does not make one a great writer, but it is the heartbeat of your work. There’s nothing magic about it. You develop it by being honest about who you are and being willing to share who you are with your readers. It’s the thing that has readers say, “I’d know his/her writing anywhere.” Two of my favorites are Nora Ephron and Anne Lamott.

  10. In my own writing, I think that voice is what is present before I start self-censoring and editing. It’s when I start the second-guessing that voice seems to dissolve into the background.

  11. […] first is a crafty piece by Betsy Lerner on voice. I can always count on Betsy’s posts to be entertaining and thought provoking. It […]

  12. So apt of you to sound this out.

    The song of some one making sense–that’s a voice to me.

  13. Should I be ashamed that the only thing that comes to mind is the song “One Voice” by Barry Manilow.

  14. (hangs head in shame)

    • I LOVE Barry Manilow! Thank you for having the courage to name check a guy whose voice isn’t from the damn freaking fringes of society: trust Philp Lopate when he says that the Great American Narrative has been hijacked by “voices” from the outer edge of our culture. Yes, THE Philip Lopate. I heard him say that at a reading I went to for Patricia Hempl’s new memoir SO THERE.

  15. If an author can nail a voice, I will read the book purely for voice-enjoyment. I think a solid, personality voice is mandatory for the overall success of a writer.

  16. I have always wanted to write but I don’t care for my voice…at all. The authenticity mentioned above nails it. When Im’ too conscious of my voice it becomes affected…ick.

    As always, I am always learning.

  17. I spent way too much time in writing groups with people who wanted to alter my voice. I had heard a lot about “voice” in writing classes, but didn’t fully realize what it was until I worked with supportive people who didn’t try to change it.

    • WHen I was getting my MFA, one professor encouraged me to put my humor in my poems. That’s when I produced my masterpiece sestina “Calories and Other Counts” and my opus, “My Life as a Rash.” I really thought I had located my voice. My next teacher sneered at these poems and accused me of being like Fran Liebowitz. MFA: $40,000 Self-esteem: priceless

    • Love that, Rachael! Supportive people are essential. Writing groups? eh..

      Personally, I’d rather have the former.

  18. I think I write just to hear my voice. I tend to lose it amid the hum of the dryer and dishwasher and the silence of moving pixels about a screen,.

  19. […] Lerner One Love A “writer’s voice” has been a fairly popular topic here, so I thought you might enjoy […]

  20. For all those who love to blog hop, Zadie Smith has written a terrific and relatively short essay as featured in A Cuban in London’s Blog about ‘what makes a writer’. The importance of voice and its links to personality is clear throughout. I heartily recommend it. Zadie Smith is wise and writes beautifully on the topic.

    See; http://cubaninlondon.blogspot.com/2009/09/what-makes-good-writer-by-zadie-smith.html

    For myself, I agree with pretty well everyone here, but especially with those who first use their voices in these comments, with Sherry, Vivian and August: Voice is about not pretending; it’s about courage; it’s about what comes naturally but is so hard to find and once you’ve found it, it’s so easy to lose.

  21. Louis Menand wrote a great essay on voice in the intro to Best American Essays 2004. It also appeared in the New Yorker (Bad Comma), right after he skewered Lynn Truss’s grammar book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The section on voice is about two-thirds of the way down. He interprets the idea of voice almost literally, but with a twist; voice is to writing as singing is to speech. I found it a useful way to think about it. Writing with voice is me communicating at my best (which can include naturalness), but it’s not merely idiosyncratic.


  22. My first introduction to the idea of “voice” came not in the context of writing, but at the very end of the movie “Pump Up the Volume” where Christian Slater’s character, the pirate radio DJ, just before he is taken into custody by the FCC says “find your voice and use it!”. It is his very last legacy to his audience – the idea that by fearlessly speaking out, you can change the world and make your own existence mean something to others. (Okay, he didn’t say all that explicitly, but I take it as implied by the context of the movie). And, I’ve been thinking about that statement off and on for years. What I finally decided it meant to me is to find a way of communicating that will be effective in making a difference, and to make it uniquely your own. “Voice” doesn’t have to be about writing. Any creative form of communicating has a voice (is a voice?). And I do believe it is both found and developed. It is the answer to the question, “What can you do with your own unique talents that is effective?”.

    Juat a thought,

  23. Critics and teachers especially love the phrase “finding your voice” because most people won’t ask them precisely what they meant by it.

  24. I quote Tori Amos: “It’s been here, silent all these years.” It’s like being a mouth breather all your life, using grunts and sign language to communicate, not knowing you have vocal chords. Then one day, you say something and you’re like, “What the hell? I had that this whole time? Fuck, THAT’S the way I should be EXPRESSING MYSELF.”

  25. I’ve been told I have a “voice” since I was in fifth grade but still not entirely sure what that means. I write how I speak and I speak like I think. Is that “voice?”

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