Voice

The New Quarterly invited me to take part in their annual Wild Writers Festival this past weekend.  What fun to meet and hobnob with Southern Ontario writers. As the newbie among a group of more established authors, I took the opportunity to pick everyone's brains and pocketed a few golden nuggets about the publicity cycle, self-promotion, publishing houses, awards, reviews, and...quotation marks (of all things!). Now you know the burning question on every writer's mind: to quote or not to quote?

I was there to participate in a panel on "Finding your voice" with Kirsteen MacLeod, Kerry-Lee Powell, and Brent van Staalduinen. (You can see a few photos on Brent's site) Moderater Carrie Snyder did an admirable job of keeping us on track and asking thought-provoking questions. One remains with me because I still don't know the answer: is there anything you won't write about?

A couple of us were chatting before the panel began and admitted that we could not in fact define the subject in question: voice. We knew what it was not. It was not the character's voice or the narrator's voice. Nor was it style. So what was it then, this mysterious thing we called voice?

Despite a wide-ranging and spirited discussion during our session, I don't think we came to any conclusions. But now, after some time for reflection, I believe I have an answer. So if you were at Wild Writers on Saturday and came away disappointed, I offer this post script.

So much of a writer’s voice is... nature - an unconscious, uncontrolled manifestation of our literary DNA.

The author's voice on the page is very much like a person's voice. In the sense that it is something we both can and cannot control. We can, to a certain extent, moderate the way we speak. We can train ourselves not to upspeak, we can stamp out the ums and uhs, we can, at least while sober, hide an accent and while drunk affect one. But all of this, only to a point. A tenor will never be a baritone. A person's spoken voice is particular, specific, and mostly out of their control. Partly because we never actually know what we sound like. You know when you hear your voice in a recording? Is that how I sound? Yeah, that.

Like our spoken voices, our written voices can be partly controlled. It probably changes over time as our work matures, as we try out new genres and adopt new styles. So much of a writer's voice is nurture - a mixture of the books we read and love, our teachers and mentors, the people in our lives, the stuff we consciously adopt. But so much else is nature - an unconscious, uncontrolled manifestation of our literary DNA.

An astute audience member asked this question: is voice  something that is imposed from above or bubbles up from below? To me it is the thing that seeps in, unconsciously, from below, and infuses our writing in ways we don't even realize. It's the thing only readers can intuit the way only others know what we sound like when we speak.