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What The Novelist Knows About Finding Your Voice

Robin Rice

Every novelist starts with a blank page and, hopefully, an idea. Then, not twenty seconds into her writing, she is faced with a huge array of problems and privileges, not the least of which is finding her voice.

Who, exactly, will be speaking, the all-powerful narrator, a third party, or the character? Where are we in time? Is something happening now, in this moment, or has it already happened, either recently or thousands of years ago? How will you make 6-10 characters have unique voices – so much so that the reader does not have to read “he said” and “she said” in every other line? Which characters should come across as true and likeable? If essentially good, how are they yet flawed, as no one is perfect? If they are forthright but insincere, how will the reader know? You can’t just say so. That’s cheating.

The novelist knows she has to paint a picture through every action and reaction, and each one is a choice. Even the lighting she has chosen speaks volumes. Every single word points to something. If the novelist is any good at all, she knows what each word points to and why. Honestly, just keeping the details straight can require a spreadsheet.

It is not altogether different when it comes to finding our own authentic voice.

There are a thousand choices we make each day that combine to create our “voice” – whether it is spoken, written, or communicated through such choices as our clothing and accessories. A hoodie and jeans share a totally different voice than a pencil skirt with a blouse or a Rent The Runway designer gown on loan for four days. With each choice, we speak our truth no matter how much we may think we are hiding.

If this scares you, you are not alone. I recently asked my social media followers what they feared most in sharing their authentic voice. The vast majority (of those willing to speak up), admitted that they are editing who they really are much of the time. Their voice is not only their own, but also that of the culture that constrains them, including the family members that know only partial truths and employers who want a say in how they are represented.

While this may seem to be an inevitable fact of life, I would argue that others are not editing us nearly as much as we are editing ourselves. We imagine far more constraints than are actually there. The more we imagine, and the more vividly we imagine them, the tighter our throats.

This is important because I’ve found a direct correlation between the degree to which a voice is truly one’s own and the degree to which a person is genuinely happy. If there is little authenticity and yet an appearance of happiness, most times it is likely due to a great deal of cognitive dissonance, a deep sense of inner fraudulence, or some combination of both. 

Alternatively – and this is where the plot thickens – people can be happy even while limited in voice in certain circumstances when they have made conscious choices about who they want to be in differing company and circumstances. Like the novelist who chooses to reveal parts of the plot to the reader but not the characters, these genuinely happy people have made deliberate choices about their voice in each situation. I see them as master storytellers, life writers who know what, when and why they are editing themselves. 

Like these self-actualized individuals, the novelist knows she has to make choices at every turn. If I have my character describe the daylight as beautiful, I know my reader will see her differently than if my character finds the daylight blinding, bewitching or bewildering. I’m intentionally crafting this character in my readers mind with each choice. Then, when the choices are all tallied up, my character has what we call a voice. Behind her and all the characters, as the writer I now have a voice as well. Behind all of my books, an even clearer voice will emerge, and it will be about far more than the words I have chosen to use on any given page.

In my own personal and professional life, I have come to realize that I have the very same kinds of choices – even when I don’t actively think about the fact that I do.  Coming out of the dark theatre, am I blinded by the light? Bewitched by it? Do I find it beautiful or bewildering? We tend to think our reactions depend on everything around us, but the vast majority is determined by our choices. We are writing our truth and shaping our voice with each action and reaction. Surely we are primed for one choice over another, and at times our choices are clearly limited. Yet in those circumstances, our voice is often the clearest. Like the novelist who, after several books, finds a deeper voice, so the historical choices we have made thus far have created core habits that make us who we are. Even so, the fact remains that THIS time I can choose what I want so long as I can find the awareness in which to make the choice.

There are a thousand reasons not to find and use your voice, just as there are a thousand reasons not to write or share your novel.

My social media respondents had a painfully beautiful list of reasons not to put their truth out into the world. Some were afraid of committing what they truly felt and believed to writing because it seemed so permanent. What if they changed their minds?  To this, as novelist, I ask: What character does not grow? It is, in fact, an imperative that they do. Otherwise, why turn the page?

Other respondents were afraid they might offend portions of their audience as their office mates, friends and family were all gathered in one place. The novelist in me replies: You will always offend someone when you are deeply true to yourself.  However, you don’t have to tell everyone everything. Your choice in editing is both wise and prudent and how you dance that dance is your voice, too.

Some were afraid that they might be misunderstood.  This is why it is our task to communicate as authentically as we can, so that even if we are hated, we are hated for the right reasons.

A few brave souls worried aloud about no one wanting to read the hard-won words once they have finally been committed to the world - the vulnerability in that was just too much of a risk. Again, the novelist knows all about this. It is the risk of her life.

The novelist has the very same fears that you do, I promise. But still she writes. Still she finds a way to forget the inner arguments long enough to put the words on the page and put the page to the public.

Why? Because she knows something that maybe you do not realize: If she doesn’t dream, and ponder, and write, and edit, and refine, and edit more, and then finally, with the greatest of bravery, put her voice out there despite the risks… there will be no books on the shelf that were written by her. She will never be read and heard and known. The world of her heart and life and truth will be silent.

Here is the perhaps truest thing this novelist knows…

Whether you like it or not, we all can, and do, read you and your life like a book. You are communicating, not hiding, and when it comes to telling your story, it will be up to you to face the problems and privileges that come with having a voice and then consciously choose what goes out into the world.  

Or not.