Writing is this bizarre phenomenon where the voice inside your head materializes and occupies actual space in the world. If there's one thing I've learned from this it's that things don't sound nearly as good on paper as they do upstairs.
The profundity swimming around in my mind either doesn't actually exist or hides as soon as I grab a pen and a piece of paper. I once heard that if you can't put a thought into words, it was incomplete to begin with, so the former is probably the case for me.
Language creates a disconnect between our innate understanding of an idea and our ability to accurately convey it through word. There is nothing more frustrating than being unable to articulate our thoughts to others as coherently as we understand them in our heads. Nobody will ever be able to do this perfectly, but I have come to realize this is what writers are referring to when they talk about "finding your voice."
At first, this amorphous concept annoyed me to no end because no one elaborated on it. I can speak, can't I? That's my voice, is it not?
Well, yes and no.
Image: Steve Johnson via Flickr via Creative Commons license
After four or five years of earnestly trying to write (mostly poetry), I now know my voice to be that which conveys my most jumbled thoughts accurately. Like Hamlet, I found the inner self to be almost always expressed through some sort of mask or filter.
Whether out of disingenuousness, modesty, or simply for lack of ability, we present ourselves to others in such a way that our true self can hardly ever be known. Even those to whom we are closest cannot often see the version of ourselves which we understand as the truest.
Clearly, there is no perfect way to express our thoughts to others, but my voice as a writer is the purest way I turn my uncoordinated mental rambling into something that can be understood.
So, how did I find my voice? Truth be told, I didn't. I'm still in the process, and I think that's how you always have to look at it: As a process. No one exists in stasis. Your voice changes as you change. I started writing poetry in a style that reflected how I thought people expected poetry to sound. In short, it was awful. It was cheesy, uninspired, and at times, pretentious.
But this is how all writers must begin! I went on to take poetry workshops and write poetry in the style of my favorite poets. By getting feedback from other writers, I was able to view my work through the eyes of writers with very different styles and perspectives from my own. I was also encouraged by how edifying everyone's comments were.
Writing in the style of your favorite writers is also a great way to develop a voice. It seems counterintuitive, but by doing this, I was able to see how my favorite poets use devices and literary techniques firsthand and try to employ them in my own work. After these exercises, I had a better command of all the resources at my disposal.
It's one thing to learn about literature in a class. It's quite another to try to create it on your own.
I'm not a great writer. I might not even be good by some people's metrics. But there is something profoundly fulfilling about being able to finally get your thoughts out on paper in a style with which you are satisfied. You'll know when you find your voice by the sheer amount of relief you feel, but the only way to find it is to look in every piece of writing you create.
Find yourself in your ideas, and above all, listen to your work. Listen to your work (!), and remove anything that sounds like your thoughts encased in the trappings of others' expectations. Your voice will be what remains. It's in there. Trust me.
Allie Long is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, majoring in economics and English. Her poems and essays will appear in the forthcoming issues of Hooligan Magazine and the Rising Phoenix Review. You can find more of her work at http://www.upyourallie.com.
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