We’re talking about voice this week here at the Ball. This topic is a tough one because voice defies definition, at least, in my mind, it does, perhaps one of my esteemed Deb sisters will have a good definition for it in subsequent days. But for me, it kind of eludes description. So I sat here at my desk for a long time, trying to come up with something to say about voice, and of course, I was drawn to Google it and found this: “Ask five writers what voice is in writing, you’ll get 15 different answers.” So I feel a bit better about having trouble defining what voice is, although I do know this: yours must stand out. I hear over and over that editors can fix grammar and story issues, but they can’t fix voice. It’s something that a writer can work on, but it’s only in the writing that you can improve and hone it; it’s a muscle that needs to be worked on to become stronger. But each writer’s voice is distinct, growing from the writer’s life and experiences*. Anne Lamott says this about voice:
“We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.” From Bird By Bird, p. 198.
In other words, it’s about writing truths and honesty and real feelings and everything that shapes you as a human, even if it’s ugly or scary. In fact, it’s those ugly and scary things that make for great writing and if they’re told with honesty and no sugar-coating, they can be the most meaningful and visceral works.
And I’ve never read Lamott’s fiction**, but I expect it is meaningful and visceral and captures the human experience in a very raw and honest way. Because her book about writing does it, so I imagine her fiction does that times about a thousand.
My writer’s voice is usually funny. I know, I know: that comes as a huge surprise to you faithful readers. I have tried to deny it and write SERIOUS WORKS, but even when I’m trying to be SERIOUS, my stuff is funny, though sometimes becomes dark, gallows-type humor, because I just can’t help myself. I can’t escape my sense of humor and the truth is, I will go to the moon and back to set up a good joke. I used to try to deny it because it seemed that writing SERIOUS stuff was more respected, but I learned my lesson, thanks to a really smart editor (not the one I ended up selling SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE to, but still, a very smart and experienced lady).
I was on the phone way back when, well before SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE sold, and I was talking to this VERY IMPORTANT editor and she said what she loved about my writing was my voice. She said I was very funny and then asked me if people told me I was funny. It seemed like an odd question at the time, but as humbly as I could, I said, “Yes, people tell me I’m funny. I’m a laugh riot.” Although at that moment, the absolutely nerve-wracking situation of speaking with a VERY IMPORTANT editor and her associate on the phone about my little book did not lend itself to me being funny at all. But when she went on to describe one of the scenes in the book and was actually laughing about it on the phone, I realized that she was right. I am funny and if I can make a seasoned editor laugh, maybe there’s something to writing funny and maybe it’s something I should embrace and hone.
So I did. I wrote SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE to be honest and funny and capture the truths of a twelve year old girl.
And here it is something like two and a half years later and my book came out a month ago and I’m hearing things like “If I were to use a single word to describe Small Medium at Large it would have to be hilarious.”
So yeah, I think I found my voice***. And it’s funny. And that’s a good thing.
So you – have you read any books that had great funny voices? If you’ve been around for a while, you know I love Christopher Moore’s LAMB, but I’d love to hear more about your picks for humorous voices in fiction.
*(So I turned away from writing this post just now and did some more Googling and found this: “Voice is style, plus theme, plus personal observations, plus passion, plus belief, plus desire. Voice is bleeding onto the page, and it can be a powerful, frightening, naked experience.” And yeah, that kind of sums it up really nicely.)
**Despite wanting to and meaning to—soon I’ll pick up one of her books, I promise.
***I also found the ability to sob over really amazing reviews—thank you to all the amazing people who have read and reviewed SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE (including my fellow Debs). I wish I could list all the reviews here, but I’m blushing as it is and don’t want this whole post to seem even more narcissistic than it already is.